Is Summer Camp Right for Your Autistic Child?

Handler Showing Barred Owl to Campers
Neil Rabinowitz / Getty Images

 Ahhhh, summer camp! What child wouldn't want to take part in a week, a month, or even two months of swimming, sailing, canoeing, sharing cabins and showers with buddies, eating in a mess hall, cheering for color wars, playing capture the flag? Of course, the answer is -- plenty of kids find camp difficult and even overwhelming, especially when those kids are autistic.

Typical summer camps make a lot of assumptions about children.

In fact, many camps are built around the assumptions that:

  • Kids love hanging out in large groups of other kids
  • Kids love making noise and making messes
  • Kids are eager to form and compete in teams
  • Kids, unlike most adults, are perfectly comfortable sleeping on lumpy mattresses with other kids in the same room
  • Kids enjoy and are good at activities that require fine and gross motor skills -- activities ranging from complex arts and crafts projects to archery and soccer.

These assumptions, however, are rarely accurate for kids on the autism spectrum. The vast majority of kids on the spectrum, as it happens, find it difficult if not painful to integrate into large groups, cope with loud noise and mess, function as part of a team, or manage fine and gross motor activities.

Fortunately for kids with autism (and many other kids who don't really fit into the "typical kid" mold), summer camping has changed radically over the years.

Sure, you can still go to the kind of camp you may remember from decades past. But today there are a huge range of summer camp options, as well as summer camps (both day camps and sleepaway) that are specifically dedicated to the needs of kids with special needs.

So -- how do you determine whether camp really is right for your child on the autism spectrum?

  This checklist may help you think through the question.

  • Is there a good, low-cost Extended School Year program offered for your child that would meet his or her specific needs? (This would be a free option which many families prefer.)
  • How does your child with autism feel about the idea of summer camp (local or sleepaway) in general? If he or she doesn't really have an answer to that question, you may want to show her pictures or even take her for an off-season visit.
  • Does your child have a specific interest or ability that might make a particular summer camp a good match? Is that interest or ability strong enough to overcome issues that may become a problem as a result of autism? For example, an autistic child who's a terrific drummer might nevertheless have trouble at a typical music camp because of difficulties with expressive language or other social skills.
  • Does your child need a level of support that is not offered by the camps you've found?
  • If the camp doesn't offer support, can you provide support through a funded (or privately paid) support person such as a wraparound or aide?
  • How does the camp administration feel about including your child? If the camp is a special needs camp, does your child fit the criteria? If it is not a special needs camp, is the administration enthusiastic about including your child?
  • What would happen if your child's behaviors and differences became challenging for the camp staff? How do they handle special behavioral challenges, bullying, or differences in ability, etc?
  • What happens if your child has a tough time connecting with other campers or making friends?Are there staff members or systems for helping kids to function well in group settings?

While there are many potential pluses to camp for a child on the spectrum, it's important to think through the challenges ahead of time. Worse than a summer with no camp is a summer that includes a really negative camp experience.

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