Every kid should be able to look back on summer camp as a memorable time having fun, making friends and gaining new skills and independence. Yet, as if the process of finding the right camp isn’t baffling enough, parents of children with special needs come to the search with an additional—and often complex—set of concerns. To get at the heart of some of parents’ most important questions, we spoke with Gary Shulman of Resources for Children with Special Needs, who assures parents that, in the end, it’s worth the effort to find a program that both you and your child will love.
Q: How can children with disabilities benefit from a camp experience?
A: From the child’s perspective, camp is fun, they learn skills, they make friends, and it can be a support network because they’re with children who have similar special needs. Meanwhile, parents are getting respite and learning that their child can be safe with another adult.
Q: What makes a special needs camp different from a typical summer camp?
A: For one thing, many special camps have intensive medical care readily available. The other thing is the staff training. There are kids with severe behavioral issues, and in a mainstream program, the staff may only have a general idea about what to do when the child is really losing it because the child is overly stimulated and stressed out. In a special needs program, staff may understand and be able to use techniques like applied behavioral analysis and timeouts, rather than just calling up a parent. So many parents of kids with disabilities have had the experience, “Come get Johnny. That’s it, he’s going home.” If you’re in a special needs program, everybody’s like Johnny, and hopefully the staff has been appropriately trained.
But don’t assume that because your child has a disability, they have to go to a special program. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s your family’s right to ask for reasonable accommodations at a mainstream camp. Does that mean you want your child in a program that doesn’t know how to successfully work with your child? Of course not.
But you may say, “Oh, I like the staff here, I like the facility. Maybe I will try this mainstream program.”
Q: What should parents look for when choosing a camp for their child with special needs? What questions should they be asking of camp directors?
A: When your child is ready for camp, consider the program’s philosophy: Do they have an inclusion program, or is it a very specialized program for children with intensive needs? If your child has a disability that requires one-on-one attention, make sure that this is the type of program that can provide that. If your child has dietary needs, make sure those needs can be met. Ask about the specific activities—an organized program should be able to say, “This is when your child is being given aqua-therapy. This is when we’re doing arts and crafts. This is when we’re doing dance therapy.” You’ll also want to ask about transportation. If you can, visit the program the summer before; if you can’t visit, most camps have CDs and videos they can send you.
Q: What kinds of scholarships are available for campers with special needs?
A: There are many funding sources. Some are reimbursement programs where you put the money upfront and you can get the money back later. Others come from charities like fraternal organizations, the Lions Club, Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis Club. But the early bird catches the money, so apply early to funding sources.
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