Choosing a summer camp for your child with special needs

Kids on a summer camp field trip. (Photo Courtesy/BigStock)

Kids on a summer camp field trip. (Photo Courtesy/BigStock)

As spring approaches, kids and teens start to anticipate summer vacation and many parents appreciate the more relaxed summer season as a break from homework and an overscheduled array of extracurricular activities. But for parents raising kids with disabilities, summer can be the hardest season: many children with intellectual disabilities and autism do best with a regular routine, so unstructured days can be challenging. And many camps are not accessible and inclusive for all kids, leaving parents wondering how to find a place where their kids can be supported, have a safe, structured environment—and also enjoy the fun of summer activities.

Fortunately, in the Greater Philadelphia area, there are a number of excellent camp options that support kids of different abilities. Now is the time to start doing your research and finding the right summer camp for your child or teen. As a mom of a 16-year-old son with autism and an intellectual disability, I’ve researched various summer camp options and have been flexible over the years in creating the best summer schedule for my son.

Here are my suggestions for finding the best summer camp for your child:

Talk to other parents: It’s important to have a “tribe” when you’re raising a child who needs extra supports. Fellow parents will share honestly about their experiences with different summer programs. Talk to parents in your kid’s classroom, Special Olympics program or join one of the many local Facebook groups for parents raising kids with special needs, such as Plymouth Meeting Area’s Exceptional Families of Exceptional Children or Main Line Special Needs Parents.

Find out about ESY eligibility: If your child has an Individualized Education Program (IEP), he or she may be eligible for extended school year (ESY), in which some form of school may continue through the summer. ESY is generally not as long as a full school day—it may take place only during morning hours or several days/week. There are school districts that will apply ESY money towards a summer camp program. If you’re interested in this possibility, set a meeting with your IEP team now to discuss.

Start local: Fortunately, more camps are working to create the supports and accommodations needed to include all kids. Many of our local YMCAs are creating inclusive camp programs—start by looking in your area and if your Y doesn’t have such a program, see if the director can guide you to a neighboring Y. If there is another summer camp in your neighborhood, make a meeting with the director and find out what kinds of supports they may be able to provide for your child.

Look for specialized camps: There are also a number of camps in the Greater Philadelphia area that focus on supporting kids with various disabilities—and a specialized setting may be the best for your child. Take a look at this statewide list that contains many local options.

Consider overnight camping: It may feel scary to send your child to overnight camp, but many kids and teens have thrived in settings that specialize in an overnight experience for kids and teens with disabilities. Overnight camps also give parents some respite time. This can be a win-win situation for the family.

Has your child experienced an excellent summer camp that you’d recommend to other families? Please share in the comments below.

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