Overnight summer camp teaches skills in a variety of disciplines – sports, arts, nature and the like. However, the enduring value of summer camp is not the skills that it teaches, but the values and traits of character that it imparts. A camp experience teaches children to work together more cooperatively, resolve conflicts, assume responsibility, and develop self-reliance and self-confidence. Parents of kids and teens with ASDs may be reluctant to send their children to sleep-away camp. Yet, children who struggle socially – specifically those on the autism spectrum – stand to benefit the most from the right camp experience. More than anything, great camps teach socialization skills. Overnight camp is an environment in which children learn about living, working, and playing together in a supportive community. Many children form their fondest memories and their deepest friendships at camp. This is especially true for children on the spectrum, who may struggle to make friends at home.
Of course, children on the spectrum have unique needs which not every camp is equipped to address. Finding the right camp is paramount to a successful experience. Here are some suggestions for navigating the process.
Selecting a Summer Camp for Your Child with ASD
The first step should be to discuss the process as a family. Make sure you and your child are on the same page. It’s never a good idea for him/her to find a brochure in the mail before you’ve talked about camp!
Questions to Ask Yourself and Your Family
- What is on my “must-have” list? (e.g. certain program offerings, minimum session length, …)
- What type of environment is necessary for my child to make progress in his social/emotional/educational development?
- Will my child “regress” without certain interventions?
- Is my child prepared to live in a more independent way?
- What kind of support does my child need to be successful?
- What are my goals in sending my child to camp?
- How important is it to me what the other campers are like? How similar to my child do they have to be in order for him/her to fit in well?
You’re now ready to do some research. Use the internet, a camp advisory service, or resources within your community to identify potential camps. Request and review camp websites and brochures. Next, speak with the camp directors. These are the people who will have ultimate responsibility for your child’s well-being. You should feel comfortable enough to speak candidly with them about your family. Most of all, they should understand ASD and be passionate about changing the lives of children!
Questions to Ask the Camp Directors
- What is the camper to staff ratio? How many staff members and campers live in each bunk?
- How do you recruit and train the staff? What are your basic requirements for age and experience working with children on the spectrum?
- What are the living accommodations? Will there be enough space to accommodate my child’s needs?
- What can you tell me to confirm that you really understand my child’s special needs?
- What is the application process?
- Are you willing to meet me and my family?
- How will the directors and staff communicate with me while my child is at camp?
- Tell me about how you got involved with this camp?
- How will you help prepare my child (and me) for camp before the summer?
- Is there flexibility in the camp program to accommodate a challenging day or a need that my child has?
- How much structure and choice are built into daily activities?
Debbie and Eric are the directors of Camp Akeela, a coed, overnight summer camp in Vermont for children and teens with Asperger’s and NLD. Debbie has a Master’s in School Counseling and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology; Eric has a Masters in Education from Harvard University. Akeela focuses on building a community in which campers feel great about themselves, make friends, try new things and have fun! For more information about Camp Akeela, see www.campakeela.com or call Debbie and Eric at 866-680-4744