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April 2012 / Bronx/​Riverdale Family / Brooklyn Family / Long Island Family / Manhattan Family / Queens Family / Staten Island Family

Finding the right camp for your special child

The skies are still gray, the trees are bare, and our fingers and toes are bundled up in mittens and socks. Summer, not to mention scheduling summer activities, is a faraway thought for most. But for families with young children and teenagers with special needs, NOW begins the process of picking the right summer program.

Summer programs are becoming more diverse…for both typical young people and those who differ from the norm. The idea that all boys live for sports, and all girls love dolls has gone by the wayside. It is now time for parents of those with special needs to ride this wave and accept that it is OK for their child to live outside of the box, too! Past practice was that a boy or girl with autism spectrum disorder, or other special needs, would spend the summer working extremely hard to fit in at a typical camp. As with any special education situation, there were pros and cons.

It’s a great idea for summer programs to expose young children or teenagers with special needs to natural settings alongside typical peers, but will the special-needs kids enjoy the experience? When picking a summer program, parents have to remember what matters most to and what is best for the special-needs child who will be attending the camp. We have to measure his level of enjoyment during his summer vacation.

To gain a broader view of activities, families can attend local parent support meetings at their children’s schools. You’ll find an abundance of information. With a little bit of research, you can find a variety of summer programs — including agriculture camps at local farms; theatre programs that include drama, stage building, filming with both Legos and Robotics; and other settings — that would fill those hot summer days with a program that accommodates your family member’s specific preferences.

You can also contact local colleges and universities in your area. Certain academic programs offer half-day and full-day summer camps geared toward children with special needs. The counselors are actual college and graduate school students in the fields of special education, speech-language pathology, psychology, and other related fields — you can’t get better than that!

You’ll benefit greatly from shopping for camps early in the year. Once you’ve narrowed down the choices on an adult level, take into account your child’s experience at the camp each day. Summer experiences are supposed to be happy and fun!

People with special needs need to alleviate anxiety and prepare for change by being exposed to information via multiple senses. Have the child preview the location visually by looking at pictures from the pamphlets and websites. Touring the site will capture the auditory and kinesthetic modalities, and counting down to the end of the school year and beginning of summer on a calendar will prepare the child for a change in routine.

What matters most to the special-needs child or teenager should be the foremost thought when choosing a summer program. Try to be flexible and think outside the box, and get a head start, too, so that you can have full access to all of the options out there.

Rebecca McKee, The 13th Child Autism and Behavioral Coaching. For more, visit or

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