Special Camps for Special Kids

Sending a child to summer camp for the first time can make any parent nervous. But worries are often magnified for parents of kids with special needs. Images of sunlit lakes and carefree campers are often trumped by concerns about behavior, communication and physical safety. Stacy De La O, whose daughter, Fia, has high functioning autism, remembers the weeks leading up to Fia’s first overnight camp experience as a 10-year-old. “I was a wreck!” she admits. “But we prepared well, and in the end I trusted the counselors at Blue Compass to take care of her.”

Children with physical, cognitive or medical challenges often don’t get many opportunities to navigate the world without a parent close by. Kids with special needs benefit from summer camp in two major ways, according to seasoned camp director Kelly Kunsek of Camp Paivika, a program serving children with physical and developmental disabilities. “Time away from families increases their independence,” she says. “And as they meet other campers, their social connections expand.” Parents benefit too. After a positive camp experience, a parent is both more aware of what a child can do for themself, and more comfortable allowing others to assist when needed.

Research indicates there are other benefits. Because many camps cater to specific needs, children can learn new social, physical, academic or self-care skills. Interacting with others who share similar challenges lets a child’s self-esteem and confidence blossom. And for some kids, camp provides a welcome respite from routine-packed schedules and visits to therapists.

De La O’s worries evaporated when she picked Fia up after the session. “I could just see in her face that she’d had a great time.” And that was just the beginning, as Fia continues to have wonderful camp experiences each summer.

Experts say that by planning well and following a few simple guidelines, you and your special needs child can reap the rewards of summer camp:

Decide what you want. Camps come in all flavors. Is your child ready for overnight camp? Or would a day camp better suit their needs? Inclusive camps allow special needs kids to participate in activities with typical peers by making accommodations. Disability-specific camps hire staff trained to meet unique needs: visual impairment, autism, diabetes, severe allergies. Traditional camps offer tried-and-true activities like swimming, boating, crafts and campfires. Specialty camps may focus on technology, sports or the arts. Therapeutic camps offer interventions targeting speech/language, behavioral and/or physical therapy goals. And combinations abound.

Do your research. De La O says the parents at her daughter’s school “exchange information to find the best camps and programs” for their kids. Recommendations from teachers and service providers who know your child are also valuable. Look at camp materials online, read brochures and watch videos. Has the camp been accredited by the Alberta Camping Association or received recognition from a reputable organization? Make sure the camp’s philosophy is a match for your family. Would your child do better in a competitive or cooperative atmosphere? Are you looking for a specific religious affiliation? Look at the physical layout of the camp and notice any potential problems.

Ask questions and get comfortable. Speak with the director and counselors who will be working with your child.

Questions include:

  • What is the staff-to-camper ratio?

  • What training do counselors receive?

  • What is the turnover rate for staff? Camps where staff members return summer after summer tend to offer more stability and consistency.

  • Is there medical staff on-site 24/7 and where is the nearest hospital?

  • How are special diets handled?

  • How will I communicate with my child during the session?

  • How are behavioral issues addressed? Be forthright and honest in describing your child’s challenges.

  • And ask yourself: Does the staff seem willing and competent to handle these specific issues?

Prepare your child. Talk about camp and the activities your child will get to try. Ask your kid what they’re looking forward to as well as what makes them nervous. Role-playing potential social situations before hand helps some kids feel more confident. Before attending overnight camp, Kunsek suggests trying a sleepover with a friend or family member. In addition, she advises, “Go to the Open House event, if possible. It’s a good way for a child to become familiar with the setting and the staff, and to meet other campers.” If a family can’t attend the Open House, Kunsek encourages scheduling a tour of the camp.

Think about funding. Camps can be expensive, but families of kids with special needs have options if they plan ahead. Many camps now offer full and partial ‘camperships’ or another form of financial assistance. You may find that it is difficult to find information on these types of programs on the camp’s website or printed materials, so it is best to contact the camp directly and ask. You can also do a search online for ‘Canadian Summer Camp Scholarships.’

Ashley is a freelance writer, and mother of two boys. She enjoys writing about the many facets of parenthood, and her articles have appeared in dozens of parenting publications. 

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