Camp is a fun part of summer for thousands of children each year. But what about your special needs child? Will he miss out on experiencing camp? He doesn't have to. With all the camps that have sprung up, kids who previously couldn't attend now may. Camps range from those designed specifically for certain special needs – such as asthma, cancer or ADHD – to traditional camps that accommodate kids with some special needs. (Check out our list of local camps for kids with special needs.)
It takes thought and research to find the camp that is best for your special needs child. Here are some steps to take to ensure you find the right camp for your child.
- Make a list of your child's needs. Before searching for a camp, consider your child's needs. Make a list of special accommodations and services your child requires. Does he need injections that must be given by a trained medical person? Does she have a special diet? Does he sleep on a special kind of bed?
- List your expectations. What do you want the camp to do for your child? Allow activities within a structured environment? Provide new experiences? Do you hope for increased independence?
- Consider your child's desires. Your child will do better if he helps with decision making. Does he want to go to camp? What kind of camp? What activities does he hope to participate in?
- Decide on duration, location and cost. Consider what you want. Do you want your child to stay a week? Longer? How far away? What if the best camp for your child is in another state or across the country? How much can you pay? The cost of a special needs camp can vary widely. Check with local organizations for sponsors or scholarships.
- Make a list of camps that match the criteria on your list. Go to the websites listed here or ask other parents for camp recommendations. List the ones in which you are interested. Then find out more about each.
- Know what kind of training the staff receives. This varies by whether your child attends a camp specifically for special needs children or a traditional camp that accepts children with certain needs. Is medical staff available at all times? Do counselors know how to deal with your child's specific challenges?
- Know what kinds of children attend the camp. Just because a camp says it accepts ADHD children or kids with disabilities doesn't mean that they have any attend – or that they are set up to work with and nurture these children. A camp may be willing to accept children with asthma, but not be able to accommodate wheelchairs for many of the activities. Or they may accept children with physical disabilities but not be accepting of behavior disorders. Find out how much a camp truly deals with children with special needs.
- Find out about child-to-caregiver ratios. How many children are in each cabin? How many counselors are there per child? Find out if the number of counselors means adult counselors or counselors in training.
- Check that the camp is clean, safe and in good repair. If possible, visit the camp. That's the best way to know what it's really like. Are wheelchair ramps in good condition? Are the cabins clean with screens on the windows? Are bathrooms and showers accessible for your child? Are there wide paths? Is there a place for your child to sit apart from the group if he needs to calm down? Is play equipment clean and in good repair? Does the camp seem bright and cheerful? If you can't visit, ask for a video.
- Make sure the overall attitude is nurturing, positive and upbeat. All children need to feel accepted and cared for. The director and counselors should be positive and cheerful. Gloomy staff members won't contribute to a positive camp experience for your child. Nurturing camp staff is essential.
- Communicate with the staff. Once you've chosen the best camp for your child, contact the camp director and be sure that your child will have everything she needs for a positive camp experience. You will be more relaxed about sending your child to camp if you know she will receive her medicine at the right time, have the diet she needs and get appropriate help with daily care.