Summer is upon us, and that means SUMMER CAMP! Camp can offer new experiences such as cooking, hiking, trips to the zoo, science experiments and many, many opportunities for social interaction! But is summer camp appropriate for your child? With so many options out there, how do you choose a camp that is right for your child?
Summer Camp: Choosing Wisely
Tip 1: Gather Information
First, do some research to find all of the viable summer camps in your area. Eliminate those that are too far away, cost too much, interfere with family vacations, and aren’t age-appropriate. Information to gather includes the times, days, cost, and location of the camp. Another important piece of information to gather is staff to student ratio. Many children on the spectrum benefit from lower ratios simply due to the amount of supervision they need as compared to typically developing children. This is especially important if your child engages in elopement/wandering behavior or other potentially harmful behaviors (i.e. ingesting non-food items, self-injurious behavior, aggression, etc.).
Tip 2: Talk to Summer Camp Personnel
Some parents may not want to share their child’s diagnosis with summer camp personnel which is understandable; however, sharing that information can be helpful. Before you sign your child up for camp, it is useful to have a conversation with the camp coordinator to determine if they will be able to provide the type of support that your child needs.
Who are the staff providing supervision? Are they adults or high school students? Are they able to offer a lower ratio to ensure your child does not wander? Are they open to kids on the spectrum? Do they have experience and training in working with children on the spectrum? Are they open to receiving training to work with your child? Including Kids offers training on a variety of topics including educating the community about autism, giving general strategies for behavior management, and strategies for promoting social skills. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in scheduling a community training.
Other questions to consider asking camp personnel include:
- What alternative does my child have if they do not wish to participate in an activity?
- What type of behavior management techniques do you use?
- What kind of reinforcement systems do you have in place?
- If your child exhibits aggressive behaviors, what is your policy on handling aggression toward others (i.e. will they be kicked out?)?
- Will staff be able to help your child in the restroom (if needed)?
- How do they handle food restrictions and allergies (if necessary)?
- Are they open to having your child come for a Meet and Greet before camp starts to become familiar with the facilities and staff?
- Are they open to creating/using visual supports and token systems?
- Are they familiar with augmentative communication systems (if your child has limited verbal capabilities)?
Tip 3: Assess Prerequisites
It is important to think about whether or not your child has the appropriate prerequisites to fully enjoy the summer camp you choose. Does your child tolerate being around a lot of other kids? Will he or she comply with new adult instructions? Is your child flexible with regards to schedule changes? Does your child know how to appropriately behave during down time? If there are frequent field trips, does your child tolerate going to new places with new people? Is your child aggressive toward others? If your child has to be consistently separated from the other kids due to the fear of aggressive behavior, how will your child improve social skills? Can your child attend to group instructions? These are all important questions to be asking when evaluating whether or not your child has the appropriate prerequisites for the camp you choose.
Tip 4: Consider Challenges
Ask camp personnel about the types of scheduled activities and field trips they have planned. Often, camps have a plan for the summer already laid out ahead of time—Ask for it! Look at the activities and field trips and think about what skills your child will need to participate. If every morning begins with a loud and rowdy song time in the gym and your child is very sensitive to loud noises, is there something else your child can do during this time? Maybe your child can stand in the back, wear headphones, or request to leave if the volume becomes too loud. If there are frequent swimming activities scheduled, but your child can’t swim, what is the alternative? Is there a splash pad? Is there another activity in which they can engage? If you find that your child does not have many of the skills required to participate in the camp, it may not be appropriate for your child. You want your child to gain new experiences and build social skills at camp. If your child has to engage continuously in an alternative activity to that of the other children, is the summer camp appropriate for your child?
Tip 5: Assess Benefits
One of the biggest benefits of camp is the opportunity to expand your child’s social skills with peers! Are the staff capable of facilitating interaction between a reluctant child and a peer? Are there opportunities for supported interaction? Another benefit that is often underrated is the opportunity for your child to experience new events and activities just as typically developing children do at camp. What opportunities are there for learning new skills? Are there age-appropriate activities or games your child will learn that can turn into potential reinforcers? Will learning these activities open up opportunities during the school year? For example, a camp that includes plenty of opportunities to learn how to play baseball may be an excellent choice if you want to try enrolling your child in baseball during the school year. Are peers from your child’s school also participating in the camp? Summer camps offer many opportunities for building friendships that can last into the next school year. A friend made at summer camp may prove invaluable as a peer mentor during the school year.
Summer camps can be a fun way for your child to pass the time during the summer while building skills and friendships, as long as the camp is appropriate for your child. Remember to gather information, talk to camp personnel, assess prerequisites, consider challenges and evaluate the benefits when signing your child up for fun in the sun this summer!
Written by Nichole O’Donnell, B.A., BCaBA