Finding a summer camp for your child with special needs can be a tricky thing for parents to navigate. Most likely, your child is enrolled in the school’s ESY (Extended School Year) program. But once that ends, there’s the big question of what your kid will do for the rest of the summer. Depending on your child’s needs and abilities, it may be possible to enroll them in a traditional camp, or you may be looking for a camp that specifically caters to kids with different abilities.
As the mom of a 10-year-old girl on the autism spectrum, we have looked at all different types of camps for our daughter. Since her diagnosis of autism at age 2, we have sought to give her as close to the same experiences as her neurotypical twin brother as possible. And while we have done activities specifically geared towards kids with special needs, we’ve never enrolled her in a special needs camp.
One reason we haven’t chosen this option is proximity. While there are plenty of summer camps of all types and special interests available across New Jersey, the special needs camps are simply just not near where we live, and I couldn’t imagine driving or busing for more than an hour each way every day.
The cost is another big factor—if you think regular summer camp is expensive, you’ll likely pay a lot more for a special needs camp. Some camps offer scholarships, but if you don’t qualify, paying the full price of a special needs camp for the summer is still not something most parents can swing. In my search, I learned about an assistance program that covers tuition and even a one-to-one aide. But we were also told the application process is so convoluted, we had to begin applying a year before we wanted to take advantage of the help.
It’s so great that there are camps that allow kids of all abilities to have a fun summer experience. Special needs camps provide such a valuable service to kids so they can gain skills and confidence, make new friends and take a break from the pressures and routine of school. Because our daughter has experience in settings with typical peers, we decided a camp where she could continue to do that would be ideal. We hope our daughter will not only glean something from being around peers, but that those kids will grow up in a world where being around people with differences is not something scary or abnormal.
Last year, when I learned of a summer camp with an inclusion program I was very excited about the possibilities. Not only would our daughter be able to attend the same camp as her twin brother, but I loved that all campers were given the support they needed to participate along with everyone else in all the same events and activities.
Unfortunately, this camp turned out to be more of a disaster than a utopia. Astonishingly, we heard reports from our daughter’s aide and our son that a camp employee became overly frustrated with our daughter’s behavior (yep, kids on the spectrum sometimes exhibit unusual behaviors) and responded with anger and a very inappropriate action. Being the mom of a child with autism, one of my biggest fears is the not knowing what really goes on. All parents feel that to some extent, but when your child can’t fully express themselves, you have to put your total trust into the hands of strangers. The only way I knew about this incident was due to the aide being someone we had worked with in the home letting us know, and our son being present. I learned firsthand that just because a camp says “inclusive” on the brochure doesn’t mean it’s a welcoming place for children of all abilities. And the scary part is, unless you have someone to be their “voice” like I did, you otherwise may not ever hear about what really goes on.
In the past, we’ve also sent our daughter to our local YMCA summer camp along with her aide. I’ve always been hesitant about pushing her into “normal” activities and camps, as I never want to overwhelm the staff or put her in a situation she can’t handle. I’m happy to say that at the Y, she got to do all the fun activities she loves (swimming especially) and when she needed to take a break the staff was accommodating and the girls in her group were mostly kind and friendly.
As a parent of a child with special needs, you quickly adjust your expectations as to what qualifies as a success. While most parents send their kids to camp with the hopes of them making lifelong friendships, my hope is that the other children will be open and tolerant and that someday they will become adults who understand that even with our differences, kids all want the same things: to play outside in the sunshine, to feel the splash of chlorinated water on a hot summer day and to slurp popsicles, just like everyone else.