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Special Camps for Special Kids

Every child can have a great summer at camp.


Ellie Miller did a lot of research before sending her then 6-year-old son Sam to day camp. In addition to asking questions about busing and activities, Miller needed to be confident that the camp she chose would be able to manage Sam’s diabetes. 

Sam is one of many children who fall into the growing population of children with special needs, the umbrella term used to describe a wide and varied assortment of disabilities. They can include medical and behavioral issues; food allergies; and emotional, learning, and physical challenges. Luckily, there are many options for choosing the right camp experience. They fall into two broad categories: dedicated camps that cater to children with a specific special need(s), or inclusion camps that serve any and all children. 

Dedicated camps 

Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association (ACA) of NY and NJ, says, “Special needs camps specialize and focus on a child’s specific challenges and can modify the program to these needs. It is also an environment where children can just be themselves and be around children with similar needs.”

Dedicated camps give children a chance to be themselves and not have to explain their behavior or disabilities. Camps geared just to children with special needs allow those children to feel they are one of many—not singled out—for a change.

When Miller decided that she wanted Sam, now 11, to have his first sleepaway camp experience, she chose to send him to a camp specifically for kids with diabetes. Miller says, “We work so hard to help him to feel like a normal kid, and I worried that he would feel like a ‘diabetic kid’ if he went to a camp for diabetic kids. But in an environment where everyone has diabetes (campers, counselors, and the first summer his assigned nurse did too) no one is the ‘diabetic kid’—they are all normal kids having a great time at camp.”

In addition, a camp dedicated to special-needs campers can provide a recreational environment with medical and therapeutic support. Many dedicated camps also offer social-skills training, speech and occupational therapy, and staff members who are trained to work with the children and their specific disabilities or illnesses. Dedicated camps offer parents peace of mind that their child is being well cared for.

Inclusion programs 

Inclusive camps give children with special needs an opportunity to interact with a broader range of peers. Depending on the camp and a child’s needs, different types of accommodations (such as lift-equipped buses or 1:1 inclusion counselors) ensure that a child has a safe and fun experience.

Mom Emmaline Doctor says, “Overnight camp is an experience I thought my son  Justin could never have due to his medical issues.” Doctor was overjoyed when she found out about an inclusion camp that could accommodate children with kidney disease. Her son got dialysis treatments at night and was able to sleep in the same cabin as his new friends.   

Inclusion camps can benefit both the typically developing child as well as the child with special needs, allowing them to have fun together and learn from one another. Inclusion camps are especially beneficial for siblings, as they give brothers and sisters an opportunity to bond together while doing activities. 

Choosing the right camp

How do you find the best camp for a child with special needs? Ms. Lupert says, “Parents can contact the ACA-NYJ (212-391-5208) for free advice in finding the right camp for their child. Whether looking into a special needs camp or a mainstream camp, families should inquire about a camp’s philosophy and make sure it matches their own family values. Parents also should get to know the camp director and schedule a tour of the camp. Seeing the camp in action will give parents a good idea of whether the camp is the right fit for their child.”

In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. In order to meet the requirements of the act, camps must make reasonable accommodations to ensure that children with disabilities will be able to participate in their programs. However, it is important for parents to ask questions to determine if the camp they are considering can really provide what their child needs.

Some parents may worry that sharing too much information about their child with the camp staff will be a detriment to their child. But if the camp knows about your child’s requirements in advance, it can accommodate your child much better. 

Camp is a great way for any child to grow and mature, but for a special needs child, the lessons learned may be exceptionally meaningful. A child who meets with limitations on a day-to-day basis will thrive at a camp where he can experience new types of physical activity, increased independence, and the opportunity to make new friends. 


Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer from Millburn. She has three children.

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