Sending Your Child With Special Needs to Camp
May 20, 2004, KidsHealth.org

Ah, summer camp. The mosquitoes, the swim races, the friendships, the bug juice, the postcards home. What child wouldn't benefit from the fun and structured freedom camps provide? Children with special needs certainly aren't an exception. But the prospect can seem daunting to parents and kids alike - how can you be sure that your child will get the attention he needs? Will he be able to participate fully? What about the other kids? Will your child make friends? Will they understand?

The good news is that there are more camp choices now than at any other time for kids with special needs. From highly specialized camps to mainstream camps that accommodate kids with special needs, there are options for every child. With careful consideration of what will benefit your child most, along with thorough research, you should be able to find the right camp for your child.

Types of Camps
When it comes to camps, children with special needs actually have as many choices as children who have no such needs. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all camps to make reasonable accommodations (such as the installation of wheelchair-accessible ramps) so that children with special needs can attend. Mainstream camps that have never had a child with special needs attend before may now be on your list of possibilities.

Inclusionary camps do just what their name implies: they include children with special needs in their groups of children with regular needs. These camps may have started out serving only a mainstream population of kids, but they have gradually changed as the needs of the families they serve have changed.

There are also camps designed just for kids with special needs, including kids who have learning or behavioral problems, kids with specific chronic illnesses, and kids with mental or physical impairments. Many of these camps accept kids with a variety of needs, but some camps only accept kids with specific problems (such as camps for kids with diabetes, cancer, speech or hearing impairment, or epilepsy).

Within all of these categories, you'll have even more choices to consider in terms of duration, philosophy, and cost. There are nonprofit and for-profit camps, religious camps, camps run by national organizations, private camps, day camps, camps that run weekend sessions, and sleepover camps that accept kids for the entire summer.

Benefits of Camp
Whether your child goes to a sleepover or day camp, an inclusionary camp, a camp for kids with a specific disability, or a more general special-needs camp, the benefits are often the same as they would be for any child:
o increased confidence and independence
o activity and exercise
o the opportunity to interact with other kids
o positive role modeling by adults
o a chance for you to have a much-needed break

Special-needs camps give children the opportunity to be around other kids who are like them, an opportunity they may not often have. Christina Myers, 15, spent 3 weeks at a camp for kids with special needs and 1 week at a mainstream camp where she was the only child with a disability (Christina has cerebral palsy). One benefit of the special-needs camp was to give Christina a rare opportunity to be around other kids like her, according to Jean Myers, Christina's mother. "She loves going away, she meets up with her friends. There's not a whole lot of time where she gets out with disabled children," Myers says.

"I think the greatest benefit is really going and being in a supportive environment with your peers," agrees Ann Dolloff, extension specialist for the New Hampshire 4-H Camps. "It's an intense experience. From that intensity comes friendship, as well as adult role modeling and relationship building. That's true whether it's 5 days or 40 days."

Independence is another benefit that camp can provide. For example, the mainstream camp gave Christina the chance to be out in the woods for a week without her parents, doctors, or physical therapist. "She loved it," Myers says. "One of my goals was to get her to be independent and get her to do more things herself, for example to dress herself, or how to ask her friends to help. The kids work together - that's been really good for Christina."

Learning that their peers or other adults can help them is valuable for kids with special needs. "Children learn flexibility in how people take care of them - they learn that people can do things differently and they'll still be OK," Dolloff says. "It also teaches kids to be assertive in problem-solving and communicating needs."

And don't overlook the physical benefits of increased activity that camp provides. Many children with disabilities or chronic illnesses are sedentary and do not participate in the sports or recreational activities that their peers do. They therefore miss out on the social and health benefits that exercise brings. Christina has become increasingly active since she began attending camp, where she started swimming, wheelchair racing, dancing, and playing tennis and golf. This gave her immediate health benefits in terms of improved cardiovascular fitness, but also provided her with recreational options that will carry over into her adult life.

In addition, many camps combine learning environments with these physical activities, giving children with behavioral or learning problems the chance to develop, or catch up on, needed skills during the summer.

What to Look for in a Camp
"The first thing you should do is look at your child objectively. In looking at camps, you have to look at the experiences your child's had so far. Has your child ever been away? Has your child been to weekend respite? What experiences has your child had that might help prepare him for this summer experience?" advises Gary Shulman, program director of Resources for Children With Special Needs, a New York City referral and advocacy center for New York-based families with a child who has any special need or disability.

Preparing Your Child - and Yourself
If you and your child haven't had the opportunity to visit the camp, make sure you get as much literature about the camp as possible, including a description of the layout and a video if they have one. You and your child should go over these materials together. Tell her that you'll be checking in regularly with the camp staff to make sure that she has everything she needs and stress that she can always let the staff know if her needs aren't being met.

Talk to your child about her feelings. Find out if she has any concerns, and do your best to reassure her that you and the camp staff will take every precaution to make sure she stays safe. You might find it helpful to talk about why she's attending camp and what some of her goals might be, such as to try a new sport, to make new friends, or to just enjoy a break from therapy sessions.

If your child is intimidated by the thought of attending a residential camp or an inclusionary camp, you might consider starting her off in a day camp or a sports team for kids with special needs. This step can give your child the skills and confidence she needs to feel comfortable about going to a residential camp. "Start with regular sports activities and day camp. Then use a special-needs camp to get a child used to being away before sending your child to an inclusionary camp," advises Ann Dolloff, extension specialist for the New Hampshire 4-H Camps.

Another option you might consider is sending your child to camp with a friend or a sibling. If your child is attending an inclusionary or mainstream camp, the buddy doesn't have to have a special need. "Going with a friend is a huge stress reduction for both child and family - they'll be looking out for each other," Dolloff says.

Sharing Information With Camp Staff
Some parents are reluctant to share too much information with camp staff for fear it will have negative repercussions for their child. "Many parents struggle with this," Dolloff says. "They think, 'If I tell everything, will they still take my kid? Or am I setting my kid up for failure?' The fact is, good camps will operate from the perspective that 'the more info we have, the better.' Most staff who truly care about kids will tell you that."

You can help educate the staff by spending time with them and answering and asking questions before you drop off your child. This can be critical. For example, 15-year-old Christina Myers recently spent a week at a mainstream camp where she was the only child with a disability (Christina has cerebral palsy). On her initial tour through the camp on the day of Christina's arrival, Jean Myers (Christina's mother) discovered that even though the camp staff had tried to accommodate Christina, they hadn't been completely successful. "They made a larger shower and thought it was accessible, but there was nothing to hold onto," Myers says. "What I did when I got there was give them one of those beach chairs, and we stuck that right inside the shower for Christina to sit on."

Many camps have paperwork you can fill out to share information as well, including information about dietary and medical needs. And regardless of whether your child is going to a day or residential camp, you should give the staff a list of emergency phone numbers and email addresses, and make sure they know how to reach you at all times during your child's camp stay. If your child takes any medication, include the phone number of your child's doctor, in the event the prescription is lost and needs to be refilled by camp staff. Check whether the camp infirmary stocks your child's medication, too. If it doesn't, make sure you send extra medicine with your child in case of an emergency.

Consult with your child's doctor and other specialists, such as a physical therapist, to make sure you provide the camp director and staff with all necessary information, and check with the camp staff to make sure they know everything they need to.

What to Pack
Try to limit the special equipment your child needs to bring, especially if it's expensive or breakable. If your child is attending a mainstream camp, she's likely to want to be like all the other kids, so do what you can to accommodate that desire. And mark or label everything with your child's name to make it easier for her to keep track of her belongings - that goes for everything from her crutches to her retainer case.

If the camp hasn't sent you one, you should call ahead for a list of recommended items. Every camp has different requirements.

You also have the option to provide any support staff your child needs. If your child needs a therapist, you can have that person come in on a predetermined basis to provide care for your child. Or maybe your child needs more intensive, round-the-clock care - ask the camp director what you can do to accommodate these special needs. "We have one child who comes to camp with an aide to make sure that his experience in our camp is successful," Dolloff says. "We don't charge room or board for that person to live in camp. It's very collaborative."

Remember, however, that you may want to let your child have a vacation from therapy or other treatments. Myers says that although she initially made sure Christina had regular physical therapy at camp, she now lets her have a few weeks off. "Children do regress a bit without therapy, but she's learned so much more, and the growing independence is what we focus on," Myers says. Before you decide to postpone any treatments, though, you should consult with your child's doctor.