Summer Camps for Kids with Special Needs
"The most amazing experience ever!" raves E.G. about the eight-week overnight camp experience her daughter had at the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. Her daughter has cerebral palsy and speech delays, uses a wheelchair and is not toilet trained. E.G. adds that after the summer her daughter "made more gains than she ever had." They are already counting down the days until next summer.
The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah serves teens 13 to 18 years old with mild to moderate developmental delays, autism spectrum disorder and neurological impairments. They also offer a mini program for kids ages 10 to 12.
Summer camp can be enriching for all children — with and without special needs. But with so many programs available, where should you start?
To find the best fit for your child, keep in mind your child's age, needs and interests, as well as practical factors such as cost, duration and location. Here are some of the other things to consider when selecting the right camp for your child. Then check out Care.com to find special needs camps that fit your family's needs.
Sponsorship and Accreditation
Who is organizing the camp? Camps may be run by a variety of groups, such as town recreation departments, schools, private organizations or non-profit organizations. The people behind the camp will impact it's philosophy and daily activities, so make sure it's something you approve of. You should look for camps that are accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA), which means that they have met ACA standards for camp operation, program quality and health and safety of campers and staff.
Type of Camp
There are many different types of summer camps, so figure out what type is right for your child.
- Specific special needs: Some camps serve children with a specific need, such as diabetes, autism spectrum disorder or Down syndrome. The benefits of these specialty camps include the opportunity to befriend others with similar needs, and the opportunity for the camp to teach specific skills and coping strategies.
- All special needs: Other camps welcome a broad range of special needs, allowing for a diverse environment where individual needs can be met. Camp Arrowhead in Natick, Massachusetts, for example, serves individuals age 5 to adult, with disabilities ranging from ADHD to a terminal illness.
- All kids: Inclusive camps serve children with and without disabilities. Parents whose children are integrated academically during the school year may want to choose an inclusive camp, recognizing that their child enjoys and succeeds in this type of environment.
- Adults: A number of camps serve young adults and adults with special needs. For example, Easter Seals offers camps for both children and adults across the country.
Summer camps can be day camps or overnight sleep-away camps, and can vary in length from less than one week to multiple weeks. Decide what your child is emotionally and physically ready for — if your child has never been to camp before, you may want to start slowly, with a nearby day camp.
Especially if your child has a physical disability, parents may want to inquire about accessibility features of the following areas at camp:
- Buildings: for example, dining facilities, main lodge, art or nature centers
- Cabin: in addition to accessibility, campers may require air-conditioning or electrical outlets for breathing or feeding machines
- Trails or paths: what does the area around the property look like
- Bathrooms: including toilets, sinks and showers
- Waterfront or pool: what safety measures are in place
- Transportation: to pick campers up in the morning and drop them off at night (if it's a day camp) and then if the campers go on field trips
Howard Blas, director of the Tikvah Program, finds that while parents often have questions about supervision, medical issues, meals and communication, the most important thing they look for is reassurance about their child's health and safety. A good staff is crucial for this. Parents want to know how experienced camp staff members are with their child's particular disability and that the staff knows what to do if a problem arises. It's important to know who will be with your child every day, socializing with and helping care for them. You might want to know:
- How the staff and counselors are hired and trained
- The ratio of campers to counselors
- How the staff are supervised and supported
- If cabin counselors attend all of the activities with the campers
- Whether there any other helpers and how those helpers are trained: for example, local high school students volunteer at Camp Arrowhead and work one-on-one as a camper's "buddy"
Medical and Behavioral Considerations
When her daughter developed strep throat at camp, E.G. didn't rush to pick her up. Instead, she relied on the medical staff to treat her daughter.
"At some point, you have to let other people take care of (your child)," she says.
Based on your child's needs, you can tailor your questions about how the camp handles medical and behavioral issues. You may want to ask:
- What medical staff (doctors, nurses, etc.) will be present at camp? Are other health professionals, such as physical, speech or occupational therapists, on site?
- What types of illnesses and issues are they trained to handle?
- How are medications given?
- What behavioral training does the staff have?
- How are existing behavioral plans put into action?
- If the situation requires it, can you provide the camp with additional training or support people to meet your child's needs?
Talk to your regular doctor(s) beforehand to see if they have any suggestions on medical questions to ask.
You will certainly want to hear about all the fun your child is having, as well as how the camp handles your child's medical and emotional issues! If you know your child can't provide a full report, ask the camp how they give updates to parents.
Reading a camp brochure or touring a camp will give you an idea about the activities offered. Be sure to express any concerns you have about your child taking part in any specific activity.
Whether at a day or overnight camp, your child will have a wonderful experience. With his or her days filled with friendly faces and new opportunities, parents should get a chance for some respite, with opportunities to reconnect with each other or spend time focused on their other children. In E.G.'s case, after she settles her daughter in at "her summer home" and her son in at another camp, she heads to an overnight camp in New Hampshire where she has been the waterfront director for over 30 years.
Dr. Deborah Elbaum is the mother of three children and lives in Massachusetts.