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Your special needs child can feel free and bloom at summer camp

Your special needs child can feel free and bloom at summer camp

Summer camp can be an incredible place of growth, independence, fun and friendships. For many children with special needs, the opportunities are limited and it is difficult to know how to choose the appropriate program.

This article provides a how-to guide for parents searching for the right camp for their child with special needs. Use these tips to help find a camp that is a good fit for your child and to make sure you both are prepared for the experience.


Do focus on age-appropriate options

Take time to look at the various camps available and evaluate your options. Many camps provide similar opportunities and activities for campers with special needs, from ages 8 to 80. You want to find a camp that specializes in a specific age group, or has separate weeks or teams based on age.

No matter what level your child functions at, it is important that the activities are age-appropriate and exciting. For example, if your child is a teenager, an age-appropriate activity might be a camp field trip to the beach. Even if your child decides to sit in the sand the entire time, it is still more appropriate to be part of a beach trip, than to play in a sandbox. One of the greatest benefits of camp is the chance to make new friends. Take advantage of the opportunity to surround your child with his or her peers to help make that happen.

Do understand the camp’s vision

You can gain a lot from learning about the vision statement of a particular camp or organization. Is offering camps for children with special needs a main focus of their work, or just an add-on to their typical programs? Some camps may allow children with special needs to join their summer programs, but will they have the supports in place to make that experience a success? Other camps have gone to great effort to welcome children of all abilities. Does the vision focus on gaining independence or new skills for the campers? Does it provide options for community integration? Or does it instead lean more towards offering respite for parents who need a break? These details will help you understand if the camp will take time to focus on the development of your child, or is instead, providing a “babysitting service” for families during the summer.

Do contact the camp before applying

Most organizations provide all relevant details and the opportunity to apply for camp online. Many parents can choose to contact camp directors via email to work out any details. However, as a parent, there is great benefit to picking up the phone and having a conversation with the camp directors. In just a few minutes, you can share a detailed vision of your child and his/her abilities, and the directors can help you decide if their particular camp is the right fit. As easy as email has become, a conversation on the phone can help you learn more about the camp, the personality of those who run it and how your child would fit into the overall picture.

Do prepare your child for the experience

Attending a summer camp provides a break from routines and an opportunity for new independence for your child. Take time to prepare them for these details before their first day of camp. Discuss healthy food choices and portion control. Talk about good planning for hygiene and bathroom timing. Work with your child to practice self-expression and verbal skills. Write down a few key reminders or phrases that your child tends to respond to or use, and share with the counselors when you arrive at camp.

Do encourage your child to try new things

Once the camp is selected and the date is approaching, get excited. Many campers will get anxious and nervous about leaving home for the first time. Prepare your child for a change in routine, and brainstorm together about new activities that he/she might want to try. It is important for your child to know that camp will be different from home and to be okay with that.

Bringing a small item from home often helps to make the transition smoother. Make sure that this item is something to stay somewhere private and not to be carried around to become a distraction throughout the day. For example, a handheld gaming device would be much more distracting than a picture of the family or a nightlight that stays in the room.


Do not allow location to limit your options

Many parents feel as if they are limited to the programs closest to their hometown. You should not feel required to settle on your choices. Families often can get transportation services to day camps that are multiple towns over, especially if the goals of the camp can be tied to your child’s individualized education plan. For sleepaway camps, families often look at programs in the vicinity of a relative, or even tie the location into a family vacation. Be creative. A lot of the excitement of camp is experiencing something new, whether it is miles away or in your own backyard.

Do not be afraid of high tuition costs

A high price tag can often be daunting for many parents as they review camping options. However, there are more and more possibilities for those needing extra financial assistance. Many camps have financial aid applications that allow parents to apply for aid directly from the camp. In addition, many local disability support organizations will offer “camperships” for those in their community, looking to attend programs.

Occasionally, families will even be able to use state funding specified for their child to pay for the tuition. Before running from sticker shock, take time to consider the options and even call the camp to ask for more details. There may be more opportunities than you realize.

Do not misrepresent your child’s needs

When applying to a camp, some parents may be hesitant to be completely upfront on an application. This is a mistake. It is in everyone’s best interest to share as many details about your child’s needs as possible. Does your child tend to roam? Does your child still need help in some areas? Don’t check off the box for “completely independent” if it is something you hope they will master by camp. Your best option is to be completely honest from the start and work creatively with the camp to find a solution. You want this to be a positive experience for everyone involved. And the best way to set your child up for success is to work together from the start.

Do not forget to give your child space to grow

Going away to camp can often be an even more stressful experience for the parent waiting at home. While it may seem helpful to call your child or his/her counselor every few hours, this is often distracting and breaks up the new routine your child is working to develop. Many camps post daily blogs or photos. Some provide an opportunity to send your child emails that are printed as letters during the day. Take advantage of these methods to stay connected, without always reaching out directly to your child.

Do not underestimate your child’s capabilities

As you and your child prepare for the camp experience, you want to be sure you are both excited and open to new opportunities. You should be clear with the camp team about your child’s needs, but don’t assume you know all of his/her abilities. Your child might surprise you during his/her time at camp.

If the camp is taking a field trip to the zoo, and you know your child typically does not enjoy the zoo, feel free to warn the counselor, but do not remove your child from the situation. The experience of the zoo at camp with new friends might be very different than the zoo with mom and dad. Encourage your child to take a chance and be ready to hear new stories about how he or she has excelled.

Jumping cartoon

Going to camp is an exciting experience for any child--and it is an opportunity worth pursuing for your child with special needs. Take time to review each and every camp opportunity. Don’t limit your options. Look for a camp that is prepared to handle the specific needs of your child, while embracing his/her potential. Once the camp is set, get excited and help prepare your child for this new adventure. With any luck, you will find a camp that brings out the best in everyone.

More expert advice about Kids with Special Needs

Photo Credits: © Andriy Petrenko -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Jenni Newbury RossExecutive Director

Jenni is the co-founder and Executive Director of PALS Programs, a non-profit organization that designs immersive camp and weekend experiences for young adults with Down syndrome and their peers. She is a graduate of Princeton University, with a...

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