For children with special needs, summer camp is an opportunity to build self-esteem, social skills, independence and friendships. Camp is a place where children find acceptance, adventure and a rare chance to be themselves, no questions asked.
"They'll learn how to interact a little bit better with their peers, and just have an opportunity to be at a place where they can be who they are," says Bill Morgan, vice president of camping and therapeutic recreation for The League for People with Disabilities, which operates Camp Greentop in Thurmont, Md., and several other summer programs. "If all the other campers have disabilities, people kind of just forget. They're in an environment where they're not judged because of their disabilities or medical needs, and a lot of times, that's really empowering."
Choosing the right camp can be an overwhelming task for parents of children with special needs. Should your child attend a camp designed for children with special needs or a traditional camp that can accommodate children with differing abilities? How can you be sure the camp has the proper training and accessible equipment? And how can you prepare your child for his time away from home?
We talked to a few area experts to get their tips for choosing the right fit.
Evaluate what you're hoping your child gets out of the experience.
Summer camps come in all shapes and sizes, and the variety is, in many ways, even broader for children with special needs. You can choose between inclusion camps, camps focused on one special need, camps that accept children with all types of special needs, therapeutic camps, recreation camps, day camps, sleepaway camps and more.
Think about what you want your child to get out of the experience, taking his input into account.
Molly Whalen is director of development and communications for Ivymount School & Programs, as well as a mom of two children with special needs.
When she was deciding on camp for her children, she knew that she wanted their camp experience to be different from school. While she says her children need to be in specialized classes during the school year, she saw camp as an opportunity to improve their social skills and have a break from academics.
"If you think about it, if you have trouble reading and you have dyslexia, being in a school room eight hours a day is almost like lifting weights constantly," Whalen says. "So the idea that you can have fun [at camp] but also be in a structured environment, it's just great for them."
She chose a camp where her children are able to pick arts-heavy programming and avoid sports.
"As a parent, you just have to kind of know your kids," she says. "When you're looking at camps you need to see what they're interested in."
Do your research.
Search online, pick up camp guides, visit camp expos and check in with your network. There are plenty of resources at your disposal to find the perfect camp for your child.
Consider working through a camp adviser at a service like Tips on Trips and Camps. Advisers are familiar with the different camp options across the country, and can let you know which ones match your checklist.
Reach out to friends, teachers, therapists and others to see what they have to say, too.
"It's kind of the 'mom network,'" says Whalen. "'Oh, I tried this one five years ago, and it was great. Try this, try that,' that kind of thing."
Have an honest conversation with the camp director about your child's unique needs.
If you're considering sending your child to a mainstream camp, you want to be sure the camp is able to accommodate him. If it's a specialized camp, you want to be sure your child will be happy among the camp's programs and campers.
Talk to the camp director about your child, and ask about the experience the staff has working with children with similar needs.
"A lot of times parents are apprehensive about being honest about the needs of their child, but unfortunately, a camp can't really make an informed decision unless they know what to expect with the nature of the disability and the child," Morgan says. "... With an honest eye, just say, 'This is what you can expect. These are some things and tools we've tried that have been helpful.' That way, the director can decide if it's the right environment, and it will allow him to prepare the staff."
You should feel more comfortable with camps that ask for a lot of information on allergies, medical records and dietary conditions. This means the director is well-versed in making accommodations for different children's needs.
Morgan adds that it may be frustrating to hear that a camp is not prepared to meet your child's needs, but it's better to find out now than once your child has already started attending the camp.
Ask about financial aid options.
Specialty camps are likely going to cost more than your typical summer camp due to their specialized equipment and lower student-to-staff ratio, but there may be ways to reduce the steep price tag.
Ask the camp if they offer "camperships" and whether your child is eligible.
If the camp includes any therapy programming, you may be able to submit to insurance, says Whalen. For instance, if the camp includes two hours of speech therapy, check with your insurance provider to see if you can submit a claim for that amount of time.
Depending on the state, you may be eligible for funding through government agencies, especially if they consider camp a respite for the parents. Talk to your service coordinator to see if you qualify.
Consider visiting the camp site.
In general, it's a good idea to visit the camp site to tour the facilities and have your questions answered. For parents of children with physical disabilities, a tour allows you to see first-hand whether your child will thrive at the camp.
"A lot of times, there are special adaptations with the swimming pool, where they have a ramp or only a shallow end," says Meg Smith, a camp adviser with Tips on Trips and Camps. "They focus on safety around the water, certainly. A lot of times, they'll have air conditioning for the cabins, which is not a traditional thing you'll find at camps, but some kids get aggravated when they're hot, so A/C is helpful for that. And they're very structured. Special needs kids are often … used to having bedtime at a certain time, and they like to know how their day is going to progress."
Bringing your child along to visit is a good idea, too. If he has difficulty adjusting to new environments, taking a tour and snapping a few photos might help him prepare mentally for his time away from home.
Take a deep breath.
Remember that gaining independence is part of growing up, and camp is a wonderful opportunity for children to test their limits and discover themselves in a safe environment.
Though the options, cost and send-off may seem daunting, once all is said and done, your child will have a unique experience to learn, grow and make friends this summer.