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Choosing a Summer Camp Program for Children with Special Needs

Choosing a Summer Camp Program for Children with Special Needs

I was chatting with a co-worker of mine last week about her plans for her soon to be first grader this summer. She was talking about the variety of summer camp options there are, but how expensive they are and how the part-day hours are not compatible with the summer camp needs of a working parent. I empathized with her, but started to panic a bit about what kind of care we’ll have to find for Max next summer when he’s no longer in child care. I’m not sure that the choices typically open to 5-6 year olds will be the right choice for him. He tends to overheat, so I’m not sure a traditional day camp where he’ll be outside all day will be the right fit. Anywhere where they swim is going to require a second thought because counselors need to be extra diligent because of his epilepsy (not that they shouldn’t watch other kids just as closely). Some kind of half-day program won’t work well with my work hours, and hiring a nanny, while an attractive option, worries me because I work from home. I’m not sure I’d be able to tune them out all day. (As a side note, are there other work from home parents who have nannies in their homes while they work? If so, I’d love to hear how it works for you.)

I think we’re just going to have to take a leap and consider our options just as we would for Ben, our “typical” child when it comes to choosing a summer day camp. Just as we are with school next year (having Max ride the bus vs. driving him, participating in the YMCA after-school program with little to no structure), we’re going to have to trust that Max can handle it before ruling things out without knowing otherwise. We’re also going to have to be diligent and observant and make sure this new independence is working to help him, not working against him. This whole thought process has really opened my eyes to how much I’ve been trying to protect Max and how much I need to let him spread his wings a bit more.

I wonder what others with children who have moderate special needs do. What kind of after-school or summer programs have worked well for your children?



  1. MediaMom June 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Ok — so I’m embarrassed to admit that I know this from watching Celebrity Apprentice, but Clay Aiken from American Idol started a charitable organization called the National Inclusion Project. (Aiken was a special ed teacher for Idol.) The organization’s goal is to train teachers and program providers how to adapt their programs to be able to include children with special needs. Summer camps seem like exactly the kinds or providers they aim to help. I wonder if they — or other organizations like them, keep a list of camps that are able to meet the needs of children like Max.

  2. MediaMom June 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Correction — Clay Aiken was not a Special Ed Teacher “for” Idol, but rather “before” Idol.

  3. Kris-Ann, Progressive Mom June 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Thanks MediaMom… I’m going to check out that organization. My husband also came across a day camp that is run like a typical camp but is intended for children with more needs and has staff trained to work with children with special needs.

  4. Mom of kid on the spectrum July 9, 2014 at 10:04 am

    I just got this e-mail in my inbox today. It is the middle of July, and we are talking about choosing summer camps? If this was designed to be relevant, might be a good idea to send it out in March. I do not agree with the writer of this article at all – she writes ” we’re going to have to trust that Max can handle it before ruling things out without knowing otherwise.”
    There are several reasons why this is not a good idea to throw your kid into a situation and “see if he will swim out”.
    1. Damaging his self-esteem. You know your son better than anyone else, you’ve raised him. While it is a good idea to raise the bar, it is a horrible idea to set him up for failure. If he begins to fail in having social interactions because he is at a camp that is supervised by young adults untrained in dealing with special needs kids, it may damage his self esteem and self worth. It may take months of therapy to fix.
    2. Disrupting work schedule. Once you see your child fail in camp, you now have to find alternative care, which may or may not be possible. Other options may be booked up and unavailable.
    3. Future issues. Once a child has failed in an environment that was not appropriately set up for him, he may begin to be apprehensive and anxious about approaching other situations, even if they are set up for success.

    In my opinion, it is important to do very thorough research for any summer camp that a child with special needs will attend. Meet with camp counselors/ camp director ahead of time, discuss his strengths / weaknesses, ensure their support and that the program is appropriate for the child. It may be possible to hire the camp counselor to come to the house ahead of time for a few hours to familiarize them with your child. Create a short and consice list / handout to give to the counselors about the child and how to handle a common situation that may occur. You don’t have to write a book, but google – there are handouts readily available from other parents that think ahead and prepare.

  5. Tracy December 31, 2015 at 10:39 am

    My county has a Therapeutic Recreation department that holds summer camp! It is amazing. My son with ADHD is in their ADD/ADHD/LD/ED camp and my child with special needs (CP, cognitive impairment, etc.) is in their cognitive disability camp and they have a camp for physical disabilities as well. Low ratios, work off the child’s IEP, the staff visits the children in school for an observation before summer camp, swim lessons included and field trips. They even provide transportation. All the camps are at the same location so my son and daughter ride the bus to and from together. Price is only slightly more than the traditional summer camps their recreation department offers. Well worth it. I suggest you try your county recreation program and see if they offer anything like this.

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