Every kid should be able to look back on summer camp as a time spent having fun, making friends, and gaining new skills and independence. But as if the process of finding the right camp isn’t baffling enough, parents of children with special needs come to the search process with an additional, and often complex, set of concerns. New York Family spoke with Gary Shulman of Resources for Children with Special Needs to get at the heart of some of parents’ most important questions about camp. (We also encourage parents to check out RCSN’s schedule of free workshops—held all over the city, they cover everything from Early Intervention to obtaining ongoing support services to preparing for high school and beyond.)
Every kid should be able to look back on summer camp as a memorable time spent having fun, making friends, and gaining new skills and independence. Yet, as if the process of finding the right camp isn’t baffling enough, parents of children with special needs come to the search process with an additional, and often complex, set of concerns. To get at the heart of some of parents’ most important questions, New York Family spoke with Gary Shulman of Resources for Children with Special Needs, who assures parents that, in the end, it’s worth the effort to find a program both you and your child will love.
How can children with disabilities benefit from a camp experience?
From the child’s perspective, camp is fun, they learn skills, they make friends, and it can be a support network because they’re with children who have similar special needs. Meanwhile, parents are getting respite and learning that their child can be safe with another adult. When I’m doing training for parents of children with disabilities, I always ask, “Raise your hand if you’re going to live forever.” The fact is there are some children with disabilities who are going to need support services for their entire life, and at a certain point, their parents won’t be around. You have to prepare children to trust other adults, and parents need to learn through positive experiences that other adults can work with, care for and love their child.
What makes a special needs camp different from a typical summer camp?
For one thing, many special camps have intensive medical care readily available. The other thing is the staff training. There are kids with severe behavioral issues, and in a mainstream program, the staff may only have a general idea about what to do when the child is really losing it because the child is overly stimulated and stressed out. In a special needs program, staff may understand and be able to use techniques like applied behavioral analysis and timeouts, rather than just calling up a parent. So many parents of kids with disabilities have had the experience, “Come get Johnny. That’s it, he’s going home.” If you’re in a special needs program, everybody’s like Johnny, and hopefully the staff has been appropriately trained.
But don’t assume that because your child has a disability, they have to go to a special program. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s your family’s right to ask for reasonable accommodations at a mainstream camp. Does that mean you want your child in a program that doesn’t know how to successfully work with your child? Of course not.
But you may say, “Oh, I like the staff here, I like the
facility. Maybe I will try this mainstream program.”
What should parents look
for when choosing a camp for their child with special needs? What
questions should they be asking of camp directors?
When your child is ready
for camp, consider the program’s philosophy: Do they have an inclusion
program, or is it a very specialized program for children with intensive
needs? If your child has a disability that requires one-on-one
attention, make sure that this is the type of program that can provide
that. If your child has dietary needs, make sure those needs can be met.
Ask about the specific activities—an organized program should be able
to say, “This is when your child is being given aquatherapy. This is
when we’re doing arts and crafts. This is when we’re doing dance
therapy.” You’ll also want to ask about transportation. If you can,
visit the program the summer before; if you can’t visit, most camps have
CDs and videos they can send you.
What kinds of
scholarships are available for campers with special needs?
There are many
funding sources. Some are reimbursement programs where you put the money
upfront and you can get the money back later. Others come from
charities like fraternal organizations, the Lions Club, Knights of
Columbus, Kiwanis Club. But the early bird catches the money, so apply
early to funding sources.
Five Great Camps For Kids With Special Needs
Association for Help with Retarded Children (AHRC), NYC: Founded in
1948, the AHRC offers day camps in all five boroughs. Campers
participate in theatre, photography, arts and crafts, sports and planned
vacations to city attractions. Programs run year-round. 212-780-2500;
Camp Horizons, South Windham, CT: A sleepaway camp for kids with
developmental disabilities or challenging social and emotional needs.
Programs are designed to enhance learning while providing a fun camp
experience. 860-456-1032; camphorizons.org.
Ramapo for Children, Rhinebeck, NY: This sleepaway camp serves children
ages 4-16 with emotional and learning problems in a natural, outdoor
environment. Scholarships are available. 212-754-7003;
Southampton Fresh Air Home, Long Island: This sleepaway camp in
Southampton caters to children with severe, moderate and mild physical
disabilities. Offers both one- and three-week sessions for ages 8-18. 631-
Summer FUN: This low-cost day camp serves children ages 5 and up.
Transportation is provided. St. Gregory The Great School, 991 St.
John’s Place, Brooklyn, 718-388-5900, ccbq.org