Camp, Special Needs

Preparing your Special Needs Child for Summer Camp

After staying home several summers to be with her autistic daughter, Susan, Molly Sullivan was anxious to finish law school and find suitable childcare for her five-year-old.

Though behaviorally easygoing, Susan still required tube feeding and was only partially potty trained. Molly was hesitant to send Susan to a camp where she might not get the extra attention she needed.
Susan Sullivan is ready for monster costume day at JCC Camp.
On a suggestion by Susan’s school, Molly looked into the summer camp program at the Jewish Community Center in Uptown, which was only minutes from where they lived. She was upfront with the camp director regarding Susan’s needs, hopeful that they could accommodate her. The JCC happily included Susan, even assigning extra helpers to her group. Susan, now 14, happily spends every summer at the JCC, and even attends their mini-camps during holiday weeks. “All of that basically made it possible for me to work- that there was some place that I felt comfortable taking her,” Molly says.
There are a myriad of summer camps in New Orleans, but finding a camp that can accommodate disabilities is much trickier. Although a handful of camps are geared specifically to special needs, many special needs kids benefit more from being in larger settings, socializing with their peers.
Angie Moran is a licensed behavioral analyst with Touchstone, which uses a method called Applied Behavioral Analysis or ABA. “It is a very individualized and systematic approach to teaching kids new behaviors and helping them achieve those developmental milestones within their life that aren’t coming naturally to them,” Angie says. When ABA is applied towards children with autism and other diagnoses, it can help them navigate different environments, such as a summer camp.
Often, new camp options become available for kids with special needs because services such as Touchstone’s can provide an ABA therapist to accompany a child with a disability to a mainstream camp and support them throughout their day. These therapists can assist with things such as positive peer interactions or help to decrease repetitive behaviors. “We provide that flexibility within your child’s schedule that the mainstream camp really isn’t able to provide due to their staffing ratios versus the needs of the child,” Angie says.
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While there is no direct affiliation, camps such NORD, JCC and the YMCA have allowed therapists to work with a child during summer camp sessions. Additionally, many insurances will cover the services of a shadow as long as the child has a diagnosis of autism or an autism spectrum disorder.
Lighthouse for the Blind camper Ja’Mari plays dress up at the circus. Photo by Mary Lou Uttermohlen.

Amy Segar, with the YMCA of Greater New Orleans, has seen several children with disabilities attend summer camps at their different branch locations. It’s always been case by case, she says, but they ultimately want to assist as many as they can to the best that they can. She encourages reaching out to the camp director beforehand to have a conversation about your child’s needs. “As long as there is an open line of communication, it’s easier to have a successful camp,” says Amy.
Transitioning to a new camp or environment can be difficult for any child, but care should be taken for a child with special needs. Talk to your child about their upcoming camp experience, making sure to be positive and to highlight possible routine changes to their day. Angie suggests taking a tour of the camp ahead of time to familiarize them with the new environment, including the playground, the bathroom and where they might eat lunch. A positive conversation will allow for a much smoother transition for the child on the first day of camp.
Susan has clearly benefited from her continuous summers of JCC camp, mainly because of the social interaction with other children that are her age. “I want to have her being a part of the community just like everyone else in the community,” says Molly. At the start of camp last summer, Molly recalls her daughter walking into a room full of high school counselors who warmly shouted her name. Susan, generally shy and reserved, lit up at the attention and confidently answered, “I’m here!”
There are a few options in the New Orleans area for children with a disability who cannot participate safely at one of the more mainstream camps. Jenice Heck with Lighthouse Louisiana runs a four-week summer camp for children who are blind or have low vision. The camp was created to allow these children to have the same engaging summer experiences as their sighted counterparts. Furthermore, it is designed to help develop adaptive skills for safety and independence which is hard to incorporate into a school year, Jenice says.
The campers, whose ages range from 5 to 12, participate in activities such as rock wall climbing, horseback riding and even driving go karts. The camp also teaches orientation and mobility skills as well as cooking and personal grooming habits.
Jenice says that while it is the most chaotic four weeks of the year, it is also the most heartwarming and rewarding. The children forge strong friendships over the four weeks and are able to enjoy their day without fear of being bullied or left out. “Knowing that they are not alone and experiencing the world in the same way allows them to relax and have fun and be happy campers,” Jenice says.

Sarah Herndon is a mother of three and frequent contributor to Nola Family Magazine.

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