Summer Camp Options for Children With Special Needs

Little girl smiling while walking with friends and camp counsellor in forest
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If you're considering sending your child with special needs to summer camp, there are different types of camps to consider. Would your child benefit from a camp designed specifically for children with special needs? Or would a mainstream camp be better? What if you need to tailor the camp specifically to your child and do it yourself? Each type of camp has its own pros, cons, and considerations.

Special Needs Camp

Camps designed specifically for kids with special needs—from developmental differences like autism, ADHD, or intellectual disabilities to medical issues like diabetes or cancer—are one good option for your challenged camper.

Special Needs Pros

  • Experience an environment geared toward special needs children

  • Socialize with kids with same disabilities

  • Network with other families experiencing same things

  • Receive appropriate activities and rules

Special Needs Cons

  • Travel a longer distance

  • Pay a higher tuition than local camps

  • Receive accommodations that may not work for your child

  • Experience difficulties if camp relies on high school or college students

Questions to Ask

  • Are there adult counselors? With special-ed degrees and experience? How involved are they in the day-to-day activities of specific groups of campers?
  • Can my child have a one-on-one aide if necessary? How much will it cost? What will that person's age and qualifications be?
  • What are the rules in regards to discipline and behavior modification or management? Can my child have his or her own behavior plan? Who would administer that?
  • Is there transportation? Tuition assistance? Are there special services like speech, occupational or physical therapy? How much do they cost?

Next Steps

  • Search camp listings and recommendations to find an appropriate camp.
  • Don't assume the camp will know everything about your child—send a camp information packet in advance or on the first day.

Mainstream Camp in the Community

Easier and cheaper than specialty special-needs camps, the kind of community camp that all the neighbor kids go to is another option for your challenged child. Or maybe not, depending on how safe, prepared, and welcoming the camp will be. Consider the pros and cons of this type of camp.

Mainstream Pros

  • Interact with non-disabled peers in low pressure setting

  • Be close to home

  • Keep camp costs low or affordable

  • Give people in community a chance to know your child

  • Allow your special needs child to attend camp with siblings

Mainstream Cons

  • May be inappropriate or inaccessible to your child

  • Could put your child in danger if counselors are young

  • May experience teasing or cruelty

  • May lead to rule breaking if your child lacks support

  • May be ignored, neglected, or understimulated

Questions to Ask

  • Can I hire a one-on-one aide for my child, or will you provide one? How much will that cost?
  • Are there adult counselors? How involved are they in the daily activities of individual groups of children? Can my child be put in a group with a trained adult in charge?
  • What activities will the campers participate in? If some are inappropriate, inaccessible or unsafe for my child, can I suggest alternatives? Who will be in charge of implementing them?
  • What are the disciplinary rules and strategies for the camp? Can I submit an individualized behavior plan for my child? Who will be in charge of implementing that? If my child seems in danger of serious misbehavior, can he or she be removed from the group for some cool-down time?

Next Steps

  • Check your local newspaper for listings of camps, or your city's recreational department for city-run activities. Churches may be a particularly good place to find programs that will be open-minded about special needs.
  • Understand that the camp personnel may never have had to deal with a child with special needs. Send a camp information packet in advance or on the first day to help them out.

Camp Mom

Sometimes, the best way to get the job done right is to do it yourself. Start a do-it-yourself Camp Mom at home, and you can tailor the experience precisely to your child's needs, and hand-pick the fellow campers. Consider the pros and cons of this type of camp.

Pros of Camp Mom

  • Have lots of one-on-one time

  • Offer appropriate and accessible enrichment

  • Eliminate worries about untrained counselors

  • Experiment with teaching techniques

Cons of Camp Mom

  • Offers no break or time off for mom

  • Limits peer interactions for your child

  • Provides too much togetherness

  • Gets expensive to buy supplies and plan trips

Questions to Ask

  • Would my child benefit more from relaxed, low-pressure time at home, or a more structured routine that's closer to his everyday school experience?
  • How much do I need time away from my child to recharge my batteries and be a patient, vigilant, loving parent?
  • Do I have a plan for these summer days, or will my child just wind up vegging out in front of the TV?
  • Would a mix of camp and home time be better than an entire summer of either?
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