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Sending Your Kid with Special Needs to Camp

With planning, your child with special needs can have a fun and enriching camp experience.


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For most parents, finding a summer camp usually involves looking through directories, getting recommendations from friends or maybe even registering your son or daughter for the same camp you attended as a kid. But if your child has disabilities—like my son Jonah—then you have to navigate a more limited sector of camps that specialize in children with special needs. Sure, they’re out there, but like everything else in the special needs world, securing the best program for your child requires more advocacy and knowledge.

Don’t stress. There’s a summer experience out there for your child. Just as you create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) each year that provides necessary therapies, accommodations and supports at your child’s school, you’ll need to take the same discerning approach with summer activities.

EXTENDING LEARNING INTO THE SUMMER

First thing’s first. If your child, like mine, has significant disabilities and is predisposed to academic regression, then your school district must provide summer programming called Extended School Year (ESY). This is a decision you and your Child Study Team make together when you create your child’s IEP (which can be amended at any time). According to the New Jersey Department of Education, the team must consider these factors when deciding whether your child’s impairments warrant what's essentially summer school:

  • degree of impairment
  • degree of regression
  • recovery time from regression
  • ability of the child’s parents to provide the educational structure at home
  • child’s rate of progress
  • child’s behavioral and physical needs
  • availability of alternative resources
  • child’s ability to interact with non-disabled children
  • areas of the child’s curriculum which need continuous attention
  • child’s vocational needs
  • whether the requested services are extraordinary for the condition as opposed to an integral part of the program for those with the child’s condition

If your child is eligible, then your district can provide summer services—which are often less formal than typical school and may include summer activities like swimming or field trips—in a variety of ways. Most districts offer programs in-district, or you can urge your Child Study Team (remember, you’re the most important member) to consider private special education schools, which often run full-day ESY programs, or even typical camps with the district providing support through a personal aide and/or visits from therapists.

ESY programs vary greatly. The best ones provide a respite from the rigors of the school year while maintaining your child’s academic progress. The worst ones are either too much like “regular” school or more like daycare. Your best bet is to do your homework by visiting ESY programs the summer before your kid is eligible, speaking with the director and getting a sense of the teachers’ abilities to help your child continue to thrive while having some summer fun.

NAVIGATING THE CAMP ROUTE

There are other options, of course, depending on your child’s needs. If your child has  specific learning disabilities that don’t interfere with social skills, then you may find that a typical summer camp is a great fit, especially one with a tradition of welcoming differently-abled children.

One summer, for example, we sent Jonah to a summer camp run by the local Jewish community center after speaking frankly with the director. We found— or Jonah did—that his social anxiety overwhelmed the benefits of full inclusion, even when the camp provided a one-on-one counselor-in-training. After that, he spent many summers in ESY, both in a private special education school (at the district’s expense) and within our own district.

But what if you want your child to have a break from the classroom and experience a more typical summer camp? You’re in luck: There are day camps and overnight camps that specialize in serving children with disabilities.

FINDING THE RIGHT FIT

Start your search for a special needs camp on the American Camp Association’s website (acacamps.org) or at njfamily.com/specialneedscamps. Remember that Pennsylvania and New York, depending on your location, aren’t that far away. Jonah spent two summers at Frost Valley in the Catskills, where special needs campers are integrated during the day with other children.

Harbor Haven in West Orange offers a seven-week program for campers with mild special needs. Camp LeeMar in Lackawaxen, PA offers a seven-week session where academics and therapy are incorporated into the camp day. You might be able to persuade your Child Study Team to pay for the academic portion of the camp as a substitute for ESY. Special Olympics in Mercer County offers an after-ESY sports program called Camp Shriver that runs five days a week for four weeks. Jonah attended for years, and we even had his in-district ESY program transport him directly there.

Sure, finding a program that suits your child with special needs is challenging. But if you recognize and exercise your parent power, you’ll find a placement that’ll provide your children with a wonderful summer experience that’ll help them grow socially and maintain their academic progress from the school year. All it takes is a bit of research, some field work and your commitment to strong advocacy.

—Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for a range of publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township for 12 years and served nine years as president.

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