Ah, summer camp. The mosquitoes, the swim races, the friendships, the bug juice, the postcards home. What child wouldn't benefit from the fun and structured freedom camps provide?
Kids with special needs are no exception. But the idea can seem challenging to parents and kids alike — how can you be sure that your child will get the attention he or she needs? Will your child be able to participate fully? What about the other kids? Will your child make friends? Will they understand your child's special needs?
The good news is that there are many camp choices for kids with special needs. From highly specialized camps to regular camps that accommodate kids with special needs, options abound.
Different Types of Camps
When it comes to camps, kids with special needs have as many choices as other kids. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all camps to make reasonable accommodations (such as the installation of wheelchair-accessible ramps) so that kids with special needs can attend. So, camps that previously couldn't host kids with special needs might now be on your list of possibilities.
Inclusionary (or mainstream) camps do just what their name implies: They include kids with special needs in their groups of children with regular needs. These camps may have started out serving only a general population of kids, but they've gradually changed as the needs of the families they serve have changed.
Some camps are designed just for kids with special needs, including kids who have learning or behavioral problems, those with specific chronic illnesses, and kids with mental or physical impairments. Many accept kids with a variety of needs, but some only accept kids with specific problems (such as camps for kids with diabetes, cancer, speech or hearing impairment, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, etc.).
Within all of these categories, you'll have even more choices to consider regarding length of stay, philosophy, and cost. There are nonprofit and for-profit camps, religious camps, camps run by national organizations, private camps, day camps, camps that run weekend sessions, and sleepover camps that accept kids for the entire summer.
The benefits of camp for kids with special needs are often the same as for any child:
increased confidence and independence
activity and exercise
the opportunity to interact with other kids, develop friendships, and build relationships
positive role modeling by adults
a chance for parents to have a much-needed break
Independence is an important camp benefit. For example, an overnight mainstream camp can give special-needs kids the chance to be without parents, doctors, or physical therapists for a week. They'll do more things for themselves and learn how to ask friends to help, which can boost problem-solving and communication skills.
Also, camp provides the physical benefits of increased activity. Many kids with disabilities or chronic illnesses are sedentary and don't get to participate in the sports or recreational activities that their peers do. They therefore miss out on the social and health benefits that exercise brings.
Camp provides a variety of activities such as swimming, wheelchair racing, dancing, tennis, or golf. These give immediate health benefits (such as improved cardiovascular fitness) and recreational options that can carry over into adult life.
Many camps combine learning environments with these physical activities, giving kids with behavioral or learning problems the chance to develop, or catch up on, needed skills during the summer.
Starting Your Camp Search
To find a camp, make lists of the basics you're looking for: a list of goals, a list of caretaking priorities, and a list of other considerations (such as cost).
Then consider which type of camp might best suit your child:
inclusionary (or mainstream) camps
camps for kids with a specific special need
camps for kids with many different kinds of special needs
Consider whether your child has ever been away from home, for the weekend or even longer, and what experiences might have helped prepare him or her for camp. This will help you to decide not only the type of camp, but whether your child is ready for a day camp or a sleepover (residential) camp.
Involving kids in the camp search will help to ensure that they get the most out of the camp selected. So, ask your child:
What do you want to get out of summer camp?
What are your preferences?
Do you want to go to a coed camp, or just be around kids of the same gender?
Are there any activities you really want to try?
Would you be more comfortable going to a camp with kids who do or don't have special needs?
Are you comfortable being away from home? If so, for how long?
Do you have classmates or friends who have gone to a summer camp? If so, which ones? And did they like it?
Do you have a friend who you would like to go to camp with? What camp will they be attending?
If it turns out that the idea of camp is a bit overwhelming for both you and your child, you might want to try starting small, like weekend sessions at a special-needs camp.
Whatever type of camp you're leaning toward, it's important to do your research. Many places offer information — the American Camping Association (ACA), for example, has an online listing of special-needs camps broken down by the types of camps, cost, length of stay, state/region, and campers' ages. The site is also loaded with general and age-appropriate advice for parents of would-be campers.
You also can call local chapters of major disability organizations about camps in your area. Many organizations publish lists of camps and can connect you with camp directors and former campers.
You might have a special-needs camp fair in your area. Check the calendar listings in your local newspapers and monthly parenting magazines. Many of these are held in January or February, which means that you need to start your camp search early.
Of course, part of your research will involve figuring out what you can afford. The cost of camps varies widely, with some high-end special-needs camps costing thousands of dollars for multiple-week sessions.
You can help fund your child's camp experience by applying for scholarships — experts say to do so from December through March, because the money is gone by April or May. You can contact charitable organizations and fraternal organizations (such as the Lions, Kiwanis, and Rotary Clubs, all of which sponsor special-needs camps). And depending on your child's specific special need, he or she may be eligible for financial aid from your state. Other sources of scholarships include religious or ethnic charities.
One thing to know: You usually first need to find a camp that can take your child — most of these organizations send the scholarship money to the camp in the child's name, not to the parents directly.
So, how do you narrow down your choices and pick the camp that's right for your child? Some basic and special-needs-specific questions you'll need to have answered include:
How long are the sessions?
What's the cost? Are scholarships available?
Is it coed, girls-only, or boys-only?
What's the age range of campers?
Where is it located? How far away from your home is it?
What's the staff-to-camper ratio?
How old are most of the counselors?
What type of certification do the counselors have?
What's the turnover rate? Do kids and staff come back?
What's the camp's philosophy? Does it fit with your goals for your child?
What's the camp's transportation system like?
If physical accessibility is an issue, what's the layout of the camp? What provisions has the camp made (or can it make) for wheelchairs or crutches?
If your child needs a special diet, can the camp provide appropriate meals? If not, can you provide food for your child?
Do staff members have a background working with kids with special needs?
If your child has behavior problems, are camp staffers trained to handle such problems?
Do the counselors have first-aid training?
What kind of medical and nursing staff is available in the infirmary and during what hours? Can the staff administer any medications your child needs?
What's the procedure if your child develops a complication related to his or her medical problems? How far is the nearest hospital? If your child needs specialized treatment, is it available at that hospital?
Although you can get some of this information through phone calls, emails, brochures, and websites, experts recommend visiting the camp. You can talk to the director, see the rooms or cabins, and get a comprehensive picture of where your child will be.
Probably the only way to get a true feel for the camp is for you and your child to visit it together. This is especially important if your child is going to a regular (inclusionary or mainstream) camp where they haven't hosted many children with special needs before. This gives you a chance to point out changes they might need to make and see how the camp's staff responds to your requests.
If you can't visit a camp, interview the director and some staff members to get a feel for the place. Ask them to describe the physical layout and the kinds of activities your child will do. Also ask to speak with other families whose kids have attended to see what their experiences were like. In fact, word of mouth is one of the best ways to find out what you need to know about each camp.
As you're trying to figure out which camp is best, just remember that whatever the special need, there's likely a camp out there to suit your child. With some research and understanding between you, your child, and the camp director, your camper-to-be can have an unforgettable summer.