It’s that time of year when other parents and their kids are getting excited, making plans for the Summer and with that, camps. Parents are exchanging phone numbers and trying to figure out their respective families’ calendars so that they kids can be enrolled into the same Summer camp.
Coordinating when a specific camp is being offered, with the availability of various friends and your own family’s vacation and getting it all done by the registration deadline sounds challenging and it is for many parents. When you have a child with autism, planning for Summer camp is a whole other level of challenging. Even when you do have camp lined up, many parents have a nagging feeling about whether they have made the best choice of not. There are a few things to consider that can simplify the experience of choosing a Summer camp:
1. Start Looking for a Summer Camp Early
While most parents don’t think about Summer camps until March or April, parents of kids with autism and other additional needs usually have to start way earlier. This is because no matter where you live, there will always be far fewer camp options available for you. Amongst those few that can accommodate children with autism, not all of them will be a good fit for your child; not enough spaces available, not enough supervision, personalities don’t match, your child may not be interested in what the camp offers, scheduling issues, too expensive. Many camps rely on funding from grants for the extra support staff that children with disabilities need and because of that, it’s always prudent to start your search as early as possible. You may want to use the first day back at school after the Holidays as the beginning of your Summer camp search, right in the middle of winter!
2. Should the Camp Know About Your Child’s Diagnosis?
Absolutely, just like school. The last thing you want is to drop your child off and they need support that the camp staff was never prepared to provide. Don’t just tell them that your child has autism, tell them who your child is. Tell them what they love, what they dislike, what sets them off.
My Ethan loves swimming but hates getting wet any other time. A common, fun camp activity on a sweltering day is for counsellors to cool the campers down with spray bottles or a hose; definitely a terrible idea with Ethan. I make sure that every Summer camp Ethan attends is aware of that fun fact, just so that everyone has a positive experience.
If possible, try to have the Staff meet your child beforehand and many special needs camps often want to. Even if it’s not possible, you can certainly always prepare your child let them know where they will be going and visit the grounds at the very least.
Having said that, for some kids with autism who need very little support, in the laid back, fun environment of camp, with relatively few demands on the campers, some kids’ autism diagnosis may be irrelevant. You’ll know if that’s the case with your child and may make the decision not to let the camp staff know about your child’s autism. For many parents, letting the camp know as much as possible about your child is key for a happy Summer camp experience.
3. Summer Camp is Expensive
Like everything else, camp for kids with autism is expensive. Some camps apply for their own grants in order to accommodate children with disabilities at no additional costs to the families. Most do not. However, there may still be funding that you could access in your community. The key is to apply early. Ask other parents, social workers, community organizations, your city; ask anyone who may have information about funding. Even if you find out about funding after you’ve missed the deadline, all is not lost, keep note of it and the application deadline, it will certainly come in handy the following year.
4. Summer is Time for Fun
Summer is that time of year when nature is in celebration mode. All of life’s creatures seem to collectively come together to relax and have fun. Why not your child with autism? All year they go to school and therapy and while it’s true that Summer may be the time that your child has more availability to do more therapy or more educational activities outside of school, please don’t forget to leave time for some fun. It’s not always easy to figure out but for part of the Summer, try to find a camp whose main purpose would be for your child to have fun.
5. If it Just Doesn’t Work
Sometimes you do everything right, you apply early, the camp staff meet your child, it seems like the perfect camp and yet it just doesn’t work out. It can be disappointing and leave you scrambling at the last minute but at the end of the day, it is better for your child to have a good Summer camp experience than to be stuck somewhere they are not happy.
I know because one Summer, Ethan was kicked out of a special needs camp!
Things worked out in the end though and we found another wonderful special needs camp for him. That Summer, also happens to be the Summer that he became noticeably verbal. Our important memory of that period is that it’s the Summer that Ethan started speaking! If camp doesn’t work out, just remember that when you get through all the scrambling to make alternative arrangements, once the experience is over, it probably wont feel that important on hindsight.
It’s not easy finding a great camp for your child with autism but with a little bit of planning, keeping