If you ever went to camp as a child, you probably remember the initial hesitation you felt leaving the comforts of home. But you may also recall that once your parents drove away, you eventually bonded with other kids, reveled in the sights, sounds and activities of the camp, and had the time of your life.
Imagine being a parent who is considering sending a child with special needs to camp—a child who has that same initial fear of leaving home—but add to that equation the sensory processing problems their child may have. Those same sounds, smells, textures and environmental stimuli may send them into a tailspin. They might struggle with reading, writing or sustaining conversations with other kids.
But sending a child to a special needs camp can provide parents and family members—as well as the child—with a bit of respite. Although a child with special needs should never be viewed as a “burden” for a family, he or she may occupy a disproportionate amount of the parents’ time and energy, and sometimes a break from routine may be a panacea for reducing stress for the child, parents and siblings.
Which Camp is Best?
There are nonprofit and for-profit camps, religious camps, private camps, day camps, weekend camps and sleepover camps. It may take a little more effort on the parents’ part than filling out a simple release form, but there are many camps suited specifically for each child’s needs where parents can share information more thoroughly about things like dietary and medical needs.
“Special needs” is a broad category, so the first step is for parents to zero in on the camps that handle their child’s specific learning disabilities, behavioral deficits or physical-care needs. Some kids may have a combination of delays and diagnoses that can include autism spectrum disorders and learning disabilities.
And parents shouldn’t discount mainstream camps. Many have accommodations in place for customizing an enjoyable camping experience. And if a child has a sibling or friend, one option to consider would be to send them together, thus having a buddy system in place.
Parents can study the fine print on a camp’s website, but the best way to get a feel for their culture and philosophy is to visit while it is in session (and bring your child). Inquire about tools they may use, such as sensory breaks. Watch the counselors in action to get a feel for how they display compassion and understanding. Ask about safety procedures.
Prepare Your Child
Parents should talk to their child about the benefits of attending camp—the opportunity to try new things, the chance to make new friends and the ability to enjoy a break from the routine of doctor visits and therapy sessions.
Test the Waters
If a child is not quite ready to attend a residential camp, a day camp or a sports team for kids with special needs is a good starting point. This can give them the skills and confidence they need to feel comfortable about going to a residential camp. And in a recreational setting, they will be unencumbered by daily academic challenges and will have a chance to get away from classmates who may view them as “different.”
The best thing a parent can do when it comes to sending any child to camp is to refrain from expressing their own hesitations and fears about letting them go in earshot of the child. Respect their need for freedom and independence, and allow them to have a positive, constructive and enjoyable experience. They might even let you kiss them goodbye!
Catherine DeCenzo is an independent professional writer who has a penchant for the humorous side of life on her blog, Cat’s Out of the Bag, at catclause.wordpress.com. A former women’s lifestyle magazine editor and contributor, an archive of her articles can be found on her LinkedIn page. Email: [email protected]