5 Key Tips For Finding A Camp For A Child With Special Needs

With spring coming around, a lot of us are thinking about summer plans—and maybe, just maybe, finding a camp for our kids. It can seem like a daunting task if you have a child with special needs, but these days, having a developmental, medical, social, emotional or learning disability or even a severe food allergy is no longer a roadblock for a camp experience. In fact, according to the American Camping Association, each year more than a million special needs children head to summer camp.

“For children with special needs, summer camp is an incredible opportunity to build self-esteem, self-confidence, social skills, independence and lifelong friendships,” says Susan Kasnett. She’s founder of Summer 365, a free, year-round camp advisory service for parents and families that she runs with her daughter, Lauren. I tapped them for tips on finding the right camp for your child. Their advice applies whether you’re sending your child to sleepaway or day camp…or you’re just in the “maybe” stage.

1. Realize that one camp doesn’t fit all

“Many camps for kids with special needs tend to have a focus; some cater to children with cognitive conditions, others to those with more physical challenges. A quick search online will indicate the camp’s particular niche and expertise. There are also a growing number of mainstream camps that integrate campers with special needs depending on the nature of their need and the camp’s resources. For example, we worked with one mom whose son had ADHD and learning disabilities and required medication everyday. The school year was very regimented so she wanted the summer to be an opportunity to break away from academics and for him just to have fun and improve his social skills. Her son loved music, cooking and science so we found a sleepaway camp that had individualized programming, allowing him to focus on the activities he was interested in (and avoid sports) but in a structured environment. From the onset of your search, it is important to think about what you want your child to get out of the experience.”

2. Check it out

“It’s ideal to visit a camp while it is in session, the year before you plan to send your child. That way, you can see camp and the campers in action, tour the facilities, and speak to staff and ask questions in person. There is no better way to get a feel for the camp’s culture and philosophy. But rest assured, if you’re looking to send a child to a camp this summer, a call, home visit or video chat with the director or a staff member is a great alternative. Additionally, speaking to references is a valuable tool to learn about other children’s firsthand experiences. Camps happily connect prospective families with current families at the camp.”

3. Be totally open about your child

“It is important to have an honest conversation with a camp director about your child’s unique needs and background in order for both sides to make a well-informed decision. While you may hesitate to reveal that, say, your child has bedtime meltdowns where he screams and hits, you wouldn’t want your child to wind up at a camp that’s not equipped to handle him. To prevent heartache and set your child up for success, it’s best to be an open book.”

4.  Ask the right questions

Key ones you want to run by the camp directors:

  • What is your camper-to-counselor ratio
  • Is your camp licensed and accredited?
  • How are counselors selected and trained?
  • Who is on your medical staff and what are your medical facilities like?
  • What accommodations or equipment exist for special needs campers?
  • Is there any therapy programming offered?
  • How do you handle homesickness?
  • Have past campers been eligible for Extended School Year Funding or insurance reimbursement?

Equally as important as the questions you ask the camp are the questions they ask about your child. Many camps interview their prospective families to get a comprehensive understanding of each child to make sure their needs and interests are met. This may include parent and child input, school IEPs and medical records. This is a good indicator a camp is well versed in accommodating different child’s needs.

5.  Now, everyone enjoy!

You may feel more anxious than your child about sending him to camp but that’s completely normal. Think back to your own camp experiences, and consider the incredible gift you are giving him. Summer camp is a magical place where the pressures of the outside world are shelved and your child will be given the freedom to grow, learn and thrive in a safe environment. How great is that?

Summer 365 is also an online destination for information, tips and trends that prepare, educate and celebrate a range of child and teen summer experiences. 

From my other blog: 

Music therapy for kids with special needs

The shocking thing Max remembered

20 reasons to respect my child with special needs

Image of child on swing at camp via Shutterstock 

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