Summer Camp Options for Children with Special Needs

Little girl smiling while walking with friends and camp counsellor in forest
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If you're considering sending your child with special needs to summer camp, there are different types of camps to consider. Would your child benefit from a camp designed specifically for children with special needs? Or would a mainstream camp be better? What if you need to tailor the camp specifically to your child and do it yourself? Each type of camp has its own pros, cons, and considerations.

Special Needs Camp

Camps designed specifically for kids with special needs - from developmental differences like autismADHD, or intellectual disabilities to medical issues like diabetes or cancer - are one good option for your challenged camper.

Pros of a Special-Needs Camp

  • Environment geared to your child's special needs.
  • Opportunity to socialize with peers with same disabilities.
  • Opportunity for networking with other families.
  • Expectation that all activities and rules will be appropriate for your child.

Cons of a Special-Needs Camp

  • Camp may not be close by, requiring extensive transportation time or residential stay.
  • Tuition is often very expensive.
  • Since all children are different, even within the same disability, accommodations made for one child may be detrimental to another.
  • Reliance on high-school or college-age counselors to do most of the work with the campers may cause even a good program to be implemented improperly.

Questions to Ask about a Special-Needs Camp

  • Are there adult counselors? With special-ed degrees and experience? How involved are they in the day-to-day activities of specific groups of campers?
  • Can my child have a one-on-one aide if necessary? How much will it cost? What will that person's age and qualifications be?
  • What are the rules in regards to discipline and behavior modification or management? Can my child have his or her own behavior plan? Who would administer that?
  • Is there transportation? Tuition assistance? Are there special services like speech, occupational or physical therapy? How much do they cost?

    Next Steps

    • Search camp listings and recommendations to find an appropriate camp.
    • Don't assume the camp will know everything about your child -- send a camp information packet in advance or on the first day.

    Mainstream Camp in the Community

    Easier and cheaper than specialty special-needs camps, the kind of community camp that all the neighbor kids go to is another option for your challenged child. Or maybe not, depending on how safe, prepared, and welcoming the camp will be. Consider the pros and cons of this type of camp.

    Pros of a Mainstream Camp in the Community

    • Chance for your child to interact with non-disabled peers in low-pressure setting.
    • Close to home and usually inexpensive.
    • Your child with special needs and your other children can all go to the same place.
    • Gives people in your community a chance to get to know your child and become accustomed to his or her needs and abilities.

    Cons of a Mainstream Camp in the Community

    • Activities and environment may be inappropriate or inaccessible to your child.
    • Inadequate supervision and reliance on young people as counselors may put your child in danger, or allow him to be a danger to others; kids may also tease and be cruel to your child without a strong counselor overseeing their interactions.
    • Without appropriate support, your child may break rules and get kicked out of camp.
    • Your child may be ignored, neglected, or understimulated.

    Questions to Ask about a Mainstream Camp

    • Can I hire a one-on-one aide for my child, or will you provide one? How much will that cost?
    • Are there adult counselors? How involved are they in the daily activities of individual groups of children? Can my child be put in a group with a trained adult in charge?
    • What activities will the campers participate in? If some are inappropriate, inaccessible or unsafe for my child, can I suggest alternatives? Who will be in charge of implementing them?
    • What are the disciplinary rules and strategies for the camp? Can I submit an individualized behavior plan for my child? Who will be in charge of implementing that? If my child seems in danger of serious misbehavior, can he or she be removed from the group for some cool-down time?

    Next Steps

    • Check your local newspaper for listings of camps, or your city's recreational department for city-run activities. Churches may be a particularly good place to find programs that will be open-minded about special needs.
    • Understand that the camp personnel may never have had to deal with a child with special needs. Send a camp information packet in advance or on the first day to help them out.
    • Learn about summer camp safety.

    Camp Mom

    Sometimes, the best way to get the job done right is to do it yourself. Start a do-it-yourself Camp Mom at home, and you can tailor the experience precisely to your child's needs, and hand-pick the fellow campers. Consider the pros and cons of this type of camp.

    Pros of Camp Mom

    • Lots of one-on-one time with parents can be very beneficial to special-needs kids, especially after a hard year of school.
    • Family activities can offer specific, appropriate, accessible enrichment opportunities.
    • No worries about your child being placed under the care of untrained people who don't know him or her or understand his or her needs.
    • If you've ever thought about homeschooling your child, this is a good opportunity to start trying some teaching techniques and see how he or she responds.

    Cons of Camp Mom

    • No time off for you.
    • Limited peer interactions for your child.
    • Togetherness is good, but too much togetherness can be bad.
    • The cost of buying supplies and going on trips to museums and movies can add up, over the summer, to more than the cost of a community-based camp.

    Questions to Ask Yourself about Camp Mom

    • Would my child benefit more from relaxed, low-pressure time at home, or a more structured routine that's closer to his everyday school experience?
    • How much do I need time away from my child to recharge my batteries and be a patient, vigilant, loving parent?
    • Do I have a plan for these summer days, or will my child just wind up vegging out in front of the TV?
    • Would a mix of camp and home time be better than an entire summer of either?

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