A few months ago I began the herculean task of figuring out our family's summer camp situation. Our kids range in age from 9 ½ to 4, they have different interests, and our oldest daughter Penny has Down syndrome. For Penny, camp poses particular challenges. In the past, she has run away from the group at a day camp. Counselors have underestimated her abilities. She's had trouble making new friends. As her mom, I need to ensure that she's safe while also equipping the counselors to help her integrate into a new social setting and routine.Over the past few summers, I've learned a few things about sending a kid with special needs to day camp among typically developing kids:
- Look for camps that fit your child's interests. This may go without saying, but I sometimes have to remember that for Penny, even the things she enjoys take an extra effort. To ask her to do activities she doesn't enjoy is nearly impossible and incredibly tiring. Moreover, the social and physical dynamics of a new setting provide plenty of challenges even when she is excited about them. Penny loves pools for instance, but she doesn't like to run. She loves gymnastics, and isn't likely to enjoy art. So this summer, I chose a camp with tennis, swimming, and a craft time, but I abandoned the art camp that looked cool to me.
- Assess the camp's attitude toward kids with special needs. There's no way to guarantee how camp counselors will see a child with special needs, but a phone call with the program director can help. I once called a camp, and after explaining that Penny had Down syndrome, heard a flustered, "Well, we've never had anyone like that before!" We didn't enroll. I look for directors who don't miss a beat upon hearing Penny has Down syndrome and yet also indicate some understanding of her condition. This summer, we've enrolled her in a camp where they haven't had kids with DS in the past, but they have welcomed children on the autism spectrum and with other intellectual disabilities.
- Involve your child's special education teacher. Any challenging behavior that comes out at camp has probably come up in a school setting. After Penny ran away from the group, for instance, our special education teacher gave the camp counselors a laminated booklet to read with Penny about staying with the group. Teachers who will spend a few minutes on the phone or email can provide a wonderful bridge from school year to summer.
- Check in early and often. In the past, I made the mistake of having long conversations with counselors about Penny's needs on the first day, before they had gotten to know her and before they had encountered both her winsome spirit and her reluctance to participate in any games that involve running! I thought I had done my job well—I came armed with resources, information, and advice. I thought I had made it clear that Penny should be held to the same behavioral standards as everyone else. I thought I had made it clear that she should be expected to try everything, even if she couldn't complete every activity. Then—six weeks later—I showed up at camp on the last day, only to see Penny sitting on the steps reading a book while the other kids played kickball. She wasn't even asked to participate. It struck me then that I should have taken the time to check in along the way. I needed to make sure she was pushed in appropriate ways but also that her counselors had the resources they needed when they weren't sure what to do with a recalcitrant kid.
For kids, summers should be fun and relaxed, filled with family time and leisure. Camps can be a part of that fun, and parents can help make them more fun for children with special needs when we prepare well and provide resources along the way. Happy Summer!
Amy Julia is the mom of three kids who love broccoli and hot dogs, and who ask for lollipops every day! Her guilty pleasures are Chardonnay and Diet Coke. She is also the author of Small Talk: Learning from my Children about What Matters Most and A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectations, and a Little Girl Named Penny. Visit her at amyjuliabecker.com.