Spring has yet to arrive, so why are we talking about summer camp for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? Because you’ll need plenty of time to find a camp and then prepare your child for this important experience. But also because camps are already accepting applications and time is running out.
Whether you’ve made the decision to send your child with autism or Asperger’s to summer camp, or you’re still unsure – possibly torn between pros, cons, or where to begin – this article will help you through the process. Four camp directors shared their expertise, several parents offered advice from their camp experience, and all that information is combined here to give you tips and information to ensure a successful camp experience.
Before You Begin…
- Know what you want; determine your goals. Many parents use summer camp primarily as an opportunity for their child to be away from home, socialize and build self-confidence. Others have a more specific goal, such as a therapeutic environment, academics, or a camp specializing in sports, arts, computers and other interests.
- Perform an honest assessment. Decide whether you and your child are ready for camp. This step is just as – and sometimes more – difficult for parents.
- Gather information. If you’re having a hard time making a decision, finish reading this article, target a few camps you like and talk to the camp directors. This will give you a sense about whether that camp is a good fit and the directors will help you work through concerns to make a decision.
- Prepare a list of questions. Don’t count on remembering everything you want to ask the camp director. Make a very thorough list covering every concern.
What to Look for in a Summer Camp
for Kids on the Spectrum
You can count on this advice because it comes straight from experienced professionals managing camps for kids on the spectrum. Sylvia Van Meerton (Dragonfly Forest), Linda Tatsapaugh (Talisman Camps), Debbie Sasson (Camp Akeela), and Elsa Berndt (Camp Lakey Gap) generously offered some great information about what to look for in a summer camp. The parents added 100% agreement with these recommendations:
- Size of camp. Most camps specializing in ASD have fewer campers at each session, however you may also want to ask about size as it relates to how many campers bunk together or the number of kids in group activities.
- Ratio of campers to counselors. Special needs camps typically have ratios of 1:1 to 1:4 compared to regular camps that have 1:20+. Is there enough staff to allow individual attention to campers whenever necessary?
- Accreditation. Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association? This is a good indicator of overall quality.
- References. Will they put you in touch with another parent whose spectrum child has attended the camp?
- Application form. This should be extensive so parents provide comprehensive information. This allows staff to get to know the family and the child – what causes meltdowns, fears, when to give cues or warnings. It also builds parents’ confidence in the camp’s ability to manage their child.
- Staff training and background. How much autism-specific training is provided? By whom? This is a deal breaker because you must be confident that camp counselors understand autism and how to manage each child’s needs. At Camp Lakey Gap, counselors receive two weeks of training provided by experts from TEACCH and the Autism Society of America, and they interact with local special needs kids for experience.
- Communication. Are phone calls from parents welcome? Do staff members regularly call home? Can parents talk to their child? Some camps find that conversations between campers and parents seldom help homesickness; other camps leave it to the parents’ discretion. This is another reason why it’s important for parents to trust the camp staff. Also ask if they do anything to facilitate ongoing communication between campers throughout the year. Camp Akeela fosters a sense of community through newsletters containing updates about individual campers all year long.
- Homesickness. How do they deal with homesickness? At Talisman Camps, they encourage the children to write home, expressing how homesick they are. One mother said she was worried when she received a letter saying, “I hate camp. I’m 100% homesick.” But with each subsequent letter, her child’s rating of how homesick he was improved, creating a great visual tool for both parents and campers to see how well they were adjusting.
- Medical personnel. Who oversees medication management? Do they have a nurse available 24/7? What are their procedures in case of an emergency?
- Autism support. What specific supports do they provide? For example, at Dragonfly Forest, counselors use a whiteboard at each activity to prepare the kids by writing down the rules, what will happen, and what to say if they need a break. The counselors also carry a backpack with schedules, timers, paper/pen and a common high interest and/or soothing activity.
- Behavior management. How do they manage difficult behaviors? What happens when a child has a meltdown? Ask how they’ll deal with specific challenges faced by your child. When do they call parents?
- Daily schedule. What is a typical daily plan? Is it tailored for the child’s interests and needs? Is it flexible? Look for a structure that allows children to do activities at their own pace rather than being forced to keep up with the group.
- Breaks and downtime. How do they allow for breaks? Are they built into the schedule? Do they have a quiet place or sensory room? Are procedures in place to allow a child to opt-out of an activity when needed? Do they teach campers how to express the need to opt-out?
- Activities. Does the camp offer something your child will be interested in? Are there enough choices and different types of activities? In addition to summer activities like swimming and hiking, are there other less typical choices like cooking or wood shop?
- Special diets. Can the kitchen accommodate your child’s special dietary needs? Who will monitor the child’s diet if he can’t/doesn’t himself?
- Overall environment. This includes the physical and philosophical environment. Does the camp fit your child’s unique needs? What is their overall approach for dealing with autism?
End of Autism Digest Article
Your Child Does NOT Want To Leave Home?
Alternative to Summer Camps
Summer-Camps with a Twist: Hope you find a summer camp for your child with autism. Parents should not feel guilty that they are making plans for their child to be away at a summer camp for a week or two because both parents and child can reap the benefits offered by summer camps. If a real summer-camp will not work for your child, consider a few days’ visit with a relative or friend.
Day-Camps: If being away at night is not an option; you can look into the day-camps offered in many areas. These day-camps are found in schools, community centres, YMCA’s, etc. Some are for all kids in your area and others are organized especially for children with different needs.
Help in Home: A third option, if all else is not possible, is to have a person come into your home while you are there and work/play with your child while you attend to other things. One mom told me when she saw all was calm and her child was interacting well with her “visitor” she could go and sit outdoors and catch up on her reading or catch up with friends on the phone. This was a luxury she would never have without the help of this person. At the same time her child was learning to get use to a little change in routine and he was learning how to interact with a new person.