5 Steps to Choosing the Right Summer Camp for Your Child on the Autism Spectrum

The school year ends and summer is quickly approaching.  As parents we try to fill the summer with enriching activities while balancing classic summer fun and building family memories.  Summer camp is often part of the plan for children across the country.  But for those families with children who have special needs, such as those on the Autism spectrum, choosing a summer camp can be overwhelming task.  Where does one begin?  Below you will find five steps to help guide your family in choosing the right summer camp for your child on the Autism spectrum.

Consider your child’s interests and needs – Is your child interested in outdoor activities such as kayaking or fishing, or do they prefer indoor options such as arts and crafts?  Is your child ready for a sleepaway camp or will a day program be a better fit?  How does your child interact with neurotypical peers?  Will your child benefit most from a mainstream inclusion program which enrolls both special needs and neurotypical children or would they do better with a specialized program made up of similarly-abled peers?  Discuss your thoughts with the team who works with your child, which may include your child’s teacher, counselor, psychologist, medical professional, aid, etc.  These individuals should be able to offer their input as to your child’s interests and abilities when you are not present, to help make an educated decision.  Also remember that camp is meant to encourage your child to have new experiences and work outside their typical comfort zone, so you will want to identify a program that will meld with the overarching goals you and your child have, but also push your child to grow.

Research available programs – There is a wealth of information online to help you get started in researching programs now that you have narrowed down your interests (for example, specialized ASD camp offering sleepaway options for 1-2 weeks in duration with equine activities).  Review national websites to get a general idea about program options, locations, costs, and reviews.  Investigate and compare individual program websites to further review their accreditations, family testimonials, upcoming offerings, photos/videos of past camps, ease of contact and general professionalism of site.  A couple overview sites to get you started include The Federation for Children With Special Need’s camp guide 2019 ( https://fcsn.org/camp-guide/ ) and the American Camp Association’s guide (http://find.acacamps.org/).

Talk with other parents – Odds are other parents from your child’s classroom or school have sent their children to different programs, both locally and nationally.  These parents can offer their insights into the process of identifying their chosen camp(s) as well as their opinions about the camps themselves.  You can find out how the parents viewed the ease of enrolling in the camp, whether they felt it ultimately was a good fit for their child, the benefits seen after their child’s attendance, etc.  Be sure to ask specific questions about your areas of interest to get comprehensive feedback.  You may also ask your child’s teacher or counselor to make introductions to other parents in the school who may be able to offer you opinions about their summer experiences.  Connecting with other parents via community support groups or online social medial platforms (such as Facebook parent groups) can be further sources of reviews for you to consider.

Interview (and visit) potential programs – Once you have narrowed down your list of programs of interest, schedule phone interviews with program directors and/or key staff who can offer you further information on their particular camp.  Have a list of questions ready to ask so that you do not forget anything of importance or get lost in the conversation as directed by the staff.  Consider things such as: What is your program philosophy; Describe a typical daytime and evening schedule; What are the sleeping, bathing, eating accommodations; What medical facilities are on site; What modifications can be made if my child is unable/unwilling to participate; How are parents kept apprised of progress during the session; How can I contact my child if needed; Can I contact parents from previous sessions for their feedback?  If it is feasible, schedule a visit to the program’s campus so that you can see where your child will be staying and walk the facilities.  This will help to give you a feel for the program, ensure it has been properly represented, and help you to prepare your child for the experience since you will then be able to paint a better picture about what they will encounter at camp.

Consider financial assistance – Summer camps can be costly, particularly if you are investigating specialized options and are not just looking at those close to home.  There will be the fees associated with camp, travel expenses, as well as purchase of any items/clothing needed for the experience.  Many parents see the value of the money spent for specialized summer camps and do not question the worth of the investment, but planning and budgeting can be a daunting task.  If you need financial assistance, begin the process as early as possible and discuss options with the camp directly.  Some camps offer campers assistance, typically with specific criteria and timelines.  Be honest and direct when speaking with your chosen camp so you can get them information needed asap.  National groups sometimes offer scholarships, such as Autism Speaks.  You can also speak with your child’s school counselor to identify possible local options, such as through a local Kiwanis or Rotary club.  Some children are further eligible for financial assistance through their state. 

With research and preparation your special needs child will have an amazing summer at your selected camp and grow in skill and confidence.  Planning is key to ensuring success in choosing the right summer camp for your child on the autism spectrum, obtaining financial assistance, and enrolling early to reserve your spot for summer.