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The Benefits of Summer Camp for Children with Special Needs

The Benefits of Summer Camp for Children with Special Needs

Though finding the best summer camp for your child with special needs may be a daunting task, the benefits of attending are numerous for your child—and you.

For any parent, thinking of summer camp for your child can bring feelings of excitement and fear. Adding a layer of having a child with special needs may only amplify your emotions. The good news? Although you may not know a lot about summer camp yet, you are truly an expert when it comes to your own child. With some time and research, you’ll be able to navigate the wealth of information out there while also trusting your gut to find a strong match for your child.  All the potential benefits of camp–which include celebrating diversity, learning to respect and value everyone’s uniqueness, and more–apply to kids with special needs as well as neurotypical children. Children with special needs often have fewer opportunities to experience these benefits than their peers, which means camp can have an even larger positive impact.

The United States has a rich history of summer camp. In fact, the American Camp Association sites approximately 7,000 overnight and nearly 5,000 day camps in the U.S. alone. Why so many? If you attended summer camp as a child, you may already know. Summer camp has an impact on the children who attend both in the moment and for years to come. The ACA has even begun to research and define the outcomes of attending summer camp, asking questions such as, “How does summer camp prepare you for life?” Its findings show “camp is a community that celebrates diversity...[and teaches you] to respect and value everyone’s uniqueness.”

Camp is a space for your child to experience risk in a safe and supported environment. For you, as a parent, signing up your child for camp is an opportunity to take a step back as the protector, and to allow your child to rise to the occasion. Whether it’s something perceived as small, such as brushing her teeth on her own for the first time (even with too much toothpaste), dipping his toes in a pool, or something big like sleeping in the woods under the stars, camp has endless new experiences to offer. Milestones and growth of all sizes can happen at the right summer camp. Other benefits include finding a voice to advocate for himself, having new experiences, interacting with people different than herself, development of problem-solving skills, and increased socialization. The reality is, you won’t have the joy of seeing how summer camp can positively impact your child until he goes.

In addition to clear benefits for your child, summer camp has frequently ignored benefits for you, the caregiver. It’s often taboo to talk about, but parenting is hard work. You’re your child’s advocate, friend, educator, short-order chef, and so much more. Parents of children with disabilities have more stress in their life than parents of children without disabilities, according to a study published in the April 2017 Disability and Health Journal. Caregivers of children with disabilities often experience emotional and physical fatigue that others may never know, according to a New York Times article titled “When Caregivers Need Healing.” The respite of camp can create a pause for you and other family members to regroup and rebalance. Research supports this, too. In fact, families who have opportunities for respite, such as summer camp, can expect to see a direct correlation to reduced stress and improved marital relationships, according to a study published in the November 2013 edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Taking care of yourself and ensuring self-care is selfish in the best of ways. Despite having many talents and skills, caregivers of people with disabilities are not magical unicorns. Finding the right camp has the unique ability to benefit you, your child, and your entire family.

Five Things to Explore with Camp Directors

In exploring options for summer camp, it is important to find a program that can meet the needs of your child. There are several considerations to make in the process, as you know your child best. This search is highly personal. All campers, regardless of whether they have disabilities or not, will need to find a camp that matches their personality, needs, and interests.

Whether a camp has a culture that is rich in tradition or offers progressive technology programming, summer camps have unique identities and are not “one size fits all.” Some camps are inclusive, meaning they support people with and without disabilities while others may support one specific diagnosis each week. It’s important to think about the model and camp culture when you think about your and your child’s goals in attending summer camp.

RELATED: Get more advice and resources for parents of children with special needs.

Now it’s time to start your list! A good place to start is on the ACA’s website. Other options include getting the skinny from other parents and recommendations from educators at your child’s school or asking for resources from social workers or other service providers. You’ll also need to consider what works for your family’s budget and the different financing options that are available. The cost of camp is just as varied as the types of camps out there. Make sure to connect with at least a handful of camps in your search and ask the following questions.

Can you describe your camp landscape and size?

Get a lay of the land. Some camps are large, and some are small (both in number of campers on the property as well as acres of land). This will impact everything from sensory needs to activity options. The volume of 250 campers in a dining hall is quite different than 60. Where will your child feel most comfortable? If it’s an overnight camp, understand the physical space of the cabin, bunk beds, number of bathrooms, where counselors sleep, and what overnight support looks like. Some camps have robust technology supports, such as PEC communication and sensory breakout rooms, and others may not have such equipment.

What is the staff-to-camper ratio and will this ratio comfortably meet the needs of my child? Who are your staff? How are your staff trained?

When caregivers are forthright about their camper’s anticipated needs while at camp, the camp program is better prepared to support them in their stay and set them up for success. Make sure to not only share what your child’s best day looks like, but also what a tough day looks like. Unfortunately, not every day is everyone’s best day.

Equally important is to understand the makeup of the staff team and their backgrounds. What are their ages, what is the support structure, do they have any clinical credentials (if that’s important to you)? Many camps for children with disabilities are strictly focused on recreation and a traditional camp experience, hiring enthusiastic and caring college students. Others look to meet camper needs by hiring experienced clinical staff such as social workers, physical therapists, and applied behavior analysis therapists.

What is in place for medical support?

There are logistics to consider around potential medical attention your child may need while at camp. Important things to explore may include how the camp supports dietary considerations, who is working the camp, and what training they receive in advance of your child arriving at camp. Will your child keep their inhaler with them, will a counselor have the inhaler, or will it be kept at the health center? If your child has a dietary restriction or significant allergy, ask about the camp’s policy around this food. Is this food on-site at all? If so, in what capacity? Understand the risk for cross contamination if food is prepared on-site. You’ll want to disclose if your camper has strong preferences around food, perhaps they don’t want different foods to touch on their plate, or they only eat peanut butter and it turns out to be a peanut-free camp. Can you send them with snacks they enjoy, which will be kept by management?

What will communication look like while my child is at camp? What type of updates will I receive (emails, phone calls, photos, letters from child) and how frequently?

Be upfront if the communication plan from camp does not meet your expectation or needs. Many camps operate with an understanding that “no news is good news.” Does this work for you? Consider the size of the program and how that scale may impact individualized communication at home.

How is success measured at camp and how can I set up my camper up to be successful?

Families sign their kids up for camp with different goals in mind. That may or may not be the objective of the camp. Do your goals align with the camp’s goals? What does a successful camp stay look like? Equally important to what success looks like at camp is understanding what happens when things do not go as planned. What events or circumstances may cause an early departure? What needs are unable to be met at this camp? Who is responsible for the transition to home if a child needs to end their stay early? While not always fun to talk about, trying something new has many unknowns. An unfamiliar setting with new people and first-time experiences can promote new responses from campers.

Ask the camp what you can do as a family to help for a smooth transition to camp. Consult with your camper’s teachers to potentially mirror what has worked at school. We suggest visiting camp and getting a tour, integrating camp into therapy discussions, talking to a current camp family, creating a social story, or looking at the camp video or pictures online—whatever feels most comfortable for you and your child.

The camp search is often daunting, but the long-term benefits for you and your child are substantial. Taking the time to research camp options will set both you and your camper up for success. While your camper is tie-dying a T-shirt for the first time, you may also find time for yourself. When vetting camps, take your time, take notes, and trust your gut. As your child grows and develops, you may end up exploring different camps down the road, and that is okay. You and your child will find the perfect match in no time. Camp is an unforgettable experience for everyone. 

RELATED: Want more special needs news, tips, and resources? Read Special Parent.

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Author: Sarah Baier, LCSW, is senior coordinator of Community and Family Services at YAI, and Alice Dannenberg, LMSW, is senior supervisor of YAI Camp and Travel Programs. If you’re interested in YAI’s Mainstreaming at Camp program and other supports and services, please contact YAI’s LINK department at 212-273-6182 or [email protected]. See More

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