When my now 11-year-old twins were little, I couldn’t imagine sending either of them to sleepaway camp. But two years ago, when we visited Camp Speers YMCA in the Poconos during an open house event, my son’s eyes lit up at the rustic cabins, the cheerful dining hall and the gorgeous lake with every water sport imaginable. I knew the experience was just what he needed—a break from the stress and isolation of the pandemic and the chance to be outdoors and just be a kid again. I called my husband and we signed him up on the spot.
But as parents of kids with different abilities know, choosing a camp, whether it’s day, specialty or overnight, is not that simple. My son’s twin sister E is on the autism spectrum, and while she loves swimming and playing outdoors and all the other fun things that go with camp, the thought of her sleeping somewhere else set off fire alarm bells in my head. E’s daily living skills like brushing teeth, showering and dressing are emerging but still require supervision and assistance. There was no way I could leave her at some cabin in the woods to fend for herself. Or could I?
The first summer my son attended Camp Speers he interacted with a young girl who was attending the Dragonfly Forest Camp, a specialty camp for kids with disabilities that’s part of Camp Speers at the same location. The day we picked him up, my kind, empathetic guy explained he had volunteered to buddy up with this girl during a Fourth of July carnival. I began to wonder—could E have the experience of sleepaway? Would it be good for her?
My first step was to start a conversation with the camp directors. Since they already knew my son, we had an easy rapport and they answered all of my questions—and there were many! I learned about the camper-to-counselor ratio, how communication with parents was handled, what the daily schedule looked like and every other detail about the five-night experience. It’s important to note that I was also very upfront about E’s skill levels. The last thing I wanted was for the counselors to be surprised that my girl needed extra help in certain areas. When you’re interviewing a camp, my advice is to make sure that the information is going both ways. The staff assured me that from what I had told them, E was a great candidate for Dragonfly Forest.
Reaching Out to the Community
Now that we were seriously considering sending E to sleepaway camp, I leaned on my autism community for help and advice. I emailed with parents whose kids had taken the leap to ask them what the experience had been like. Unanimously, they told me that while they were initially terrified to let their child go, the experience had been only positive for their now-teenagers. In fact, both parents I talked to said that the week of camp has now become something that their kids look forward to, and that having that experience fostered an incredible sense of independence.
Preparing for Camp
While parents of typical kids can get pretty crazy trying to fulfill the packing lists for camp, with a child who has different abilities, there are so many more things than whether they have enough socks or labeling 14 pairs of shorts (only two of which they’ll actually wear) to consider. The first step was to make sure E understood that she was going to sleepaway camp and what would happen there. It helped that we had already visited Camp Speers in person several times for the open house and to drop off and pick up her brother. I suggest you go to the camp in person with your child so the surroundings are familiar when it’s time for camp to start.
E really enjoys reading social stories (books we make that explain with words and pictures in simple terms an event that’s going to take place) so using clip art I made a book “I’m Going to Sleepaway Camp” for her to read and re-read. The book explained that we would drop her off and say goodbye, that her counselors would take good care of her, that she would make friends and do fun activities and that at the end of the week we would come pick her up. As I expected, E poured over the book during the weeks leading up to camp.
At the same time, I wrote up a “guide to E” to give to the counselors. I wanted them to know her likes and dislikes and all of the quirks I instinctively know how to respond to but that might confuse a stranger. E is verbal, but her communication is limited so letting her counselors know that for example, if she’s upset, playing music can soothe her, was essential in my mind.
Although it sounds like I was fully prepared for E to go to Dragonfly Forest, even right before the two-hour drive to the Poconos I was whispering maniacally to my husband that if we got there and things didn’t look right, we would take E and drive back home. The separation anxiety that many parents feel sending their kids to overnight camp for the first time is quadrupled when you have a child who cannot necessarily tell you what happened or when something is wrong. Although I knew that I trusted the camp staff, this is a very real fear that parents of children with different abilities face every day. We are our children’s guardians, protecting them from everything about the world that they don’t yet know how to access or navigate. What if E wandered away? I reassured myself with the words of the camp staff that this is exactly the type of situation they are all trained for, and off we went to camp.
When we arrived, the cheerful staff welcomed E and directed us to a cabin where seven other girls were already unpacking and making up their bunk beds. In the middle of the room, a counselor had started a game of catch (something E loves to do). When we said goodbye, E instinctively followed us to the door, but a counselor drew her back into the activity.
We hit the road and drowned our worries at a roadside Dairy Queen and then headed home to wait for an update.
The staff had given me the camp director’s cell phone number in case I needed it and told me that they would be posting pictures of the campers in the next day or so. I didn’t want to be “that mom” but later that night I fired off a text asking how E was doing. The director responded immediately that she was “very sweet and seems to be having a great time.” This mom breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Quality Time for Everyone
I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time refreshing the page where the camp said they’d be posting photos of the campers. But in the meantime, I was able to spend some serious quality time with E’s twin brother (his camp weeks were different than his sister’s) and this was truly a gift. I know my son often feels like his sister gets “all the attention” and due to her disability, this may be somewhat true. Most memorably, we took a long bike ride followed by an ice cream crawl. It was great to give him my full attention and to be able to do an activity that E wouldn’t have been able to keep up with (that we would have skipped if she were present).
When we got home, I checked the website and there were several photos of E doing arts and crafts, hanging with a counselor and best of all, one of her wearing a life vest lakeside. Her light brown hair was wet and swept messily across her forehead and her little cheeks pushed up toward her eyes in a contented smile. I marveled at this confident, happy girl with droplets of water on her arms and the sun on her face. She was doing something without me, staking claim to a piece of summer all her own.