You've decided to send your child with special needs to camp this summer. But that's just the first step — you can choose a camp designed just for kids with special needs or a mainstream camp where your child will be with kids without special needs. Once that's decided, what can you do to get ready?
Preparing Your Child — and Yourself
If you haven't visited the camp, get as much information about it as possible, including a description of the layout and a video, if the camp has one, and go over these with your child.
Tell your child that you'll be checking in regularly with the camp staff and stress that he or she can always let them know if his or her needs aren't being met. Offer reassurance that you and the camp staff will take every precaution to make sure that all kids stay safe.
Talk about the benefits of attending camp and what some of your child's goals might be, such as to try a new sport, make new friends, or just enjoy a break from doctors' appointments and therapy sessions.
When kids are intimidated by the thought of attending a residential camp or an inclusionary camp, parents might consider starting them in a day camp or a sports team for kids with special needs. This can give them the skills and confidence they need to feel comfortable about going to a residential camp.
Start with regular sports activities and day camp. Then use a special-needs camp to get them used to being away before sending them to an inclusionary camp.
Another option to consider is sending a child to camp with a friend or a sibling. If kids attend an inclusionary or mainstream camp, the buddy doesn't have to have a special need. Going with a friend can reduce stress for both parents and kids, since kids with special needs and their camp buddies will be looking out for each other.
Some parents are reluctant to share too much information with camp staff for fear it will have negative repercussions for their child (for example, they may wonder if the camp will still take their child or if they're setting their child up for failure). But good camps will want and need to know as much as possible — the more information they have, the better.
Consult with your child's doctor and other specialists, such as a physical therapist, to make sure you give the camp director and staff all necessary information, and ask the camp staff if they have everything they need from you.
You can help educate the staff by spending time with them and answering and asking questions before you drop off your child. This can be critical. For example, if your child will be attending a mainstream camp, you'll want to make sure that everything is accessible for your child and that the staff understands your child's needs.
Many camps have paperwork you can fill out to share information about things like dietary and medical needs. And regardless of whether your child is going to a day or residential camp, you should give the staff a list of emergency phone numbers and email addresses, and make sure they know how to reach you at all times during your child's camp stay.
If your child takes any medication, include the phone number of your doctor in case the prescription is lost and needs to be refilled by camp staff. Check whether the camp infirmary stocks your child's medication, too. If it doesn't, send extra medicine in case of an emergency.
Try to limit the special equipment your child brings, especially if it's expensive or breakable. Kids going to a mainstream camp are likely to want to be like all the other kids, so do what you can to accommodate that desire. And mark or label everything with your child's name to make it easier to keep track of belongings — that goes for everything from crutches to a retainer case.
If the camp hasn't sent you one, you should call ahead for a list of recommended items. Every camp has different requirements.
You also have the option to provide any support staff your child needs. If your child needs a therapist, you can have that person come in on a predetermined basis to provide care. Or maybe your child needs more intensive, round-the-clock care — ask the camp director what you can do to accommodate these special needs.
Remember, however, that you may want to let your child have a vacation from therapy or other treatments. Before you decide to postpone any treatments, though, consult with your doctor.
Dealing With Anxiety and Homesickness
Many camps don't allow direct contact between parent and child while the camp is in session — they do this to help the campers stay focused on their activities. This can be scary for parents of kids with special needs, which is why it's important that you figure out, ahead of time, how you'll get information about your child's status. Will the camp call you with updates or can you occasionally call or email the supervisor and camp staff?
Like any parent of a camper, though, parents of kids with special needs can write letters to remind their kids that they're loved and missed, and that they can't wait to hear all about their campers' many experiences.
And just like any other child, your kid probably won't want you to cramp his or her style while away at camp. The best thing you can do is respect your camper's need for freedom and independence while enjoying a safe camp environment.