How to Choose the Right Summer Camp for Your Child with Special Needs

Summer camp season is here, and if you’re hesitating to send your child with special needs, think again. With so many options and styles of camps, children can find the perfect match, regardless of disability or severity.

“It’s often the parent who is not ready,” says Sherry Wacasey, former executive director of The Arc, Collin, Dallas and Rockwall counties. “In being diligent with their child’s special care, families find it difficult to let go. The healthiest decision for the child and the family is often occasional care by a trained caregiver other than family. What better option than a great camp experience?”

All you need to do is find the right fit and prepare your camper, then enjoy the benefits of the experience for both your child and you. Parents who’ve taken the plunge and experts say: Just do it.

Right kid, right camp

Determining what type of camp your child needs is the first step. If your child is high-functioning or is able to engage in activities with their typically developing peers, it could be best to send them to a camp that isn’t designated for special needs. “Such inclusion is a confidence-booster to the child with special needs and also a benefit to fellow campers, who can learn valuable social skills and respectful interaction,” Wacasey says.

Colleen Southard, co-founder of Charis Hills Summer Camp in Sunset, west of Gainesville, suggests parents visit a prospective camp first. Charis Hills, which specializes in helping children with ADD, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder and other high-functioning disabilities, hosts an open house, allowing parents and potential campers tours of their facilities so parents can see where the children will eat and sleep. Staffers will be there to greet their guests, so you can watch how they interact with your child.

During these tours, campers explore the areas where kids can fish and boat, do archery and learn about geocaching. They also learn about the camp’s many other activities, such as music and theater – if campers aren’t too busy playing sports and riding horses.

Charis Hills stages weekend camps for the whole family before the launch of the summer camp season. On Saturday afternoons, parents listen to a guest speaker while the children participate in their own activities. It’s a good way for families to get acquainted and comfortable with the camp.

When touring camps, “Ask questions, lots of questions,” says Carla Weiland, president and CEO of Camp Summit, one of the few sleep-away camps for children and adults with severe disabilities. “The child shouldn’t have to adapt to the program,” she says. “We change the program to fit the child. One of our main concerns is, ‘Can we medically handle the situation?’ And if the answer is yes, we can accommodate the camper.”

Camp Summit’s activities include nature studies, adventure trips, swimming and specialized programs that can be adapted to interest and need. There is a Ropes Challenge Course that encourages teamwork, and campers can perform in a talent show.

Make sure to ask about the staff-to-camper ratio. Though this will depend on the disability and severity of the needs the camps serve, there is often one caregiver for three to six kids. Camps that accommodate more severe disabilities, such as Camp Summit, provide one caregiver to two campers, as well as nurses, directors and support staff who are on site daily.

Pack up and go

When you’ve chosen a camp, disclose everything about your child when applying, Wacasey says. The Arc of Dallas sponsors many camps in the area, and she has seen parents withhold information for fear that their child won’t be accepted. “You never want to take the chance, because it can put everyone at risk for an unsuccessful experience,” she says. Most camps with trained staff can accommodate a wide range of campers’ behavioral, emotional and medical needs. “If they can’t handle it, your child doesn’t belong there,” she adds.

If your child has anxieties about going to camp, discuss them. If you have stories of homesickness during your own camp experiences, share how you dealt with it. More often, it’s the parents who have separation anxiety – and it’s important that they keep their emotions in check when dropping off their kids for the day or week. Once you see that your child is settled in and under their counselor’s care, offer a confident smile and a hug and head out. Almost all camps take pictures throughout the day and upload them to a website parents can visit to see all the fun campers are having.

So why endure the nervous moments that inevitably come with sending your child to camp? Because the benefits are immeasurable, and summer camp provides the perfect opportunity for students with special needs to reinforce skills and goals that are identified on their Individualized Education Plan, camp directors say.

Charis Hills, for example, designs its programs especially for children who have difficulties socializing and making friends. “Our camp has many children with autism, and while they like to talk about what they enjoy, they don’t always listen to other people,” Southard says. “At meals, campers get conversation starters that emphasize making friends and learning about each other. The counselor encourages and models listening skills to help them improve their social interaction.”

Added benefits for families with special needs include quality care that isn’t readily available outside of school. Whether it’s a day camp or overnight camp, trained staffers are a great alternative to the baby sitters you might otherwise employ during the summer months. Camp also affords a prime opportunity for parents to bond with typically developing siblings who need some one-on-one time with Mom and Dad.

Taking a whitewater rafting trip or touring landmarks isn’t an option for everyone. Knowing your child is having a wonderful vacation at a sleep-away camp such as Camp Summit makes it easier for the rest of the family to have an adventure too. One area mom explained, “At first it was hard leaving her for the week and taking our own vacation, especially because it wasn’t a ‘whole family’ vacation like you dream about. But for us, it was the only way. She couldn’t wait for us to leave so she could visit with her friends from the previous summer, and that made it easier. She had a great time, we had a great time, and it was the best possible solution.”

Wacasey often hears from teachers that kids who attend camp don’t experience the typical regression that often happens over the summer. “Camp keeps kids engaged and active,” she says, offering new experiences and providing structure and supports that keep the momentum going from the previous school year.

“We want the same things parents want for their kids,” Weiland says. “A safe environment that allows these kids the chance to be themselves. I’ve been told it’s the one place a mother can bring her child, and she isn’t trying to be fixed. She’s loved for who she is.”

This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of DFWThrive.