Summer is coming, and it's time to decide what to do with the kids. But for parents of children with special needs, the decision isn't always easy.
Choices often depend on the severity of a child's developmental disorder. Symptoms can be acute for some kids, while some children are high-functioning and able to participate in school activities with their neurotypical peers. There are camps and programs for kids with critical symptoms, but summertime presents a dilemma for these high-functioning kids. Symptoms may not be severe enough to qualify for a specialized camp, but parents may worry that mainstream camps don't provide enough structure or support.
Angela Moran, board-certified behavior analyst and site supervisor at the New Orleans-area Touchstone Center, offers advice for parents looking for an appropriate mainstream camp for their special needs kids and strategies for working with camps to help kids succeed.
Understand the logistics.
Moran says the two biggest areas of concern when choosing a camp for a special needs child are making sure the camp works with the parents' schedules and focuses on something that interests the child. Routine, expectations and scheduling are really important for these kids, she says, so if transportation or punctuality is going to be an issue, pick a camp that's more convenient.
Moran recommends a camp with a variety of indoor and outdoor activities, especially for younger kids. For older children who are more experienced and have more refined interests, a camp with a specialized focus may be an opportunity for them to advance their skills and may provide more structure than a general camp.
Also, consider kids' limitations. If a child doesn't tolerate being outside in the heat for long, a summer camp with an outdoor focus is probably not the best choice. Inquire about the space where children will spend the day (does the room get really loud or really cold?) and consider the child's interests, needs and comfort level to determine if it's a good fit.
Know the ratio of adults to kids.
"For some children, you might really want that one-to-one with a paraprofessional or an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapist," Moran says. "Some kids may be totally fine in a group of five, and some of the really high-functioning kids can easily be in a group of eight to 10. ... Consider what their typical school setting is like. What kind of ratio do they receive at school? If they're functioning there, they can probably function in a (similar environment) that is going to be a little less structured."
The costs of hiring a professional, such as an ABA therapist, often are at least partially covered by medical insurance.
Communicate early and often.
Establish open communication with camp administrators and counselors right away. Make sure they understand the child's condition and needs, then develop a plan together to meet those needs. Check in regularly with the adults that have the most direct contact with your child. Drop off and pick up is one opportunity to get face time with counselors, but parents also can work with camp staff to create a monitoring chart that counselors can fill out and send home with the student every day.
"It could be something as simple as, 'How much did I eat today?' and 'What was one highlight of the day?'" Moran says. Coding answers can be as easy as a thumbs-up, sideways thumbs or thumbs-down. Keep it simple to avoid overwhelming camp personnel.
There may be difficult days.
You can expect an adjustment period as kids acclimate to new schedules, surroundings and peers.
Moran doesn't advise pulling a struggling kid from summer camp right away, especially if things don't seem debilitating. Time spent with neurotypically developing peers and adults outside the child's usual circle and exposure to new activities are good for children with exceptionalities, especially if the activities are recreational and kids are getting the support they need. Moran says this allows these children to generalize behaviors and skills across the board, and it's often a learning experience for the other children as well, teaching them compassion and empathy.
However, she does not recommend a mainstream environment for kids with special needs looking to attend an academic camp.
"You want to make sure your child is getting grouped with kids on a similar developmental level, so they are getting their targeted needs met," she says.
If parents feel their child isn't getting the supports agreed upon, Moran advises addressing concerns immediately.
"If by the second week you think your kid is not getting the attention they need, that's when you need to bring it to (camp administrators') attention," she says, "because there's still time for the camp to have that discussion with you and talk about hiring a professional to help out more, or to talk about finding a different (camp) that may work out better. Try to come to the table with at least one possible solution, so it's not coming across as a complaint."
If summer camp doesn't work out.
Despite everyone's best efforts, even a high-functioning child may not thrive in a camp environment. If you have to remove your child from a program or if she needs a break, keep morning, lunchtime and bedtime routines as consistent as possible. Establish a schedule for your child — find classes, story times or other programming of interest, or schedule daily or weekly outings that she can anticipate. Libraries, religious organizations and community centers are good resources for activities. Moran says keeping special needs kids socialized is a priority, especially during the summer months.
"If you attend a (specialized) class or event, you likely aren't going to be the only parent there with a child with a diagnosis," she says. "Try to reach out to other people in the community, even if it's just one hour a week, so your child gets a little peer time in."