For children who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), depression or social problems, simple interactions with peers and adults can be as challenging as learning to swim or sing on stage. Using traditional camp activities and a community of peers, summer camps that serve children on the autism spectrum provide a safe, therapeutic outdoor environment where kids with social difficulties can succeed and form friendships.
Day and overnight camps for children with social challenges vary in their approach and programs. “It’s important for parents to speak with camp directors and existing camp families to find the best fit for their child,” says Ariel J. Segal, executive director at Camp Lee Mar, an overnight camp in the Poconos serving kids with mild to moderate developmental disorders. “Camp Lee Mar is a growth-producing experience, not a respite program,” he says. “It is a ‘play and learn’ atmosphere with nurturing staff. Our children learn the skills they need to be independent while living away from Mom and Dad.”
Camps for children with special needs typically require an intake interview to determine if the camp and camper are right for each other. Parents must be honest in assessing their child’s abilities, and should also ask about opportunities for financial assistance. Medical insurance may cover certain components of the camp day. If a child already has an Individualized Education Plan, his school district will sometimes pay for or contribute toward the camp cost.
The power of play
Dragonfly Forest in Phoenixville, PA offers a tuition-free, one-week overnight summer camp exclusively for children with ASDs. President Fred Weiner says, “Our program is not designed to teach social skills, but camp provides a unique way to practice social skills. We do all the same activities that a typical camp does, like swimming, archery and ropes course, but we structure those activities so they are accessible for campers with autism.”
Courtesy of Dragonfly Forest
Camp Sequoia, conducted on the campus of The Perkiomen School in Pennsburg, PA, is for boys with ADHD, ages 8-17, who need help developing their social skills but do not need the level of support offered at special needs overnight camps,” says director Ryan Wexelblatt. Sequoia campers swim twice a day and participate in a variety of activities, but Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking framework is integrated into the program. “The overnight camp experience enables our campers to develop self-confidence, resiliency, independence and the ability to form meaningful relationships with same-age peers,” says Wexelblatt.
The power of peers
Social skills development is also the main goal at area day camps like AMICA, run at Cherokee Day Camp in Bensalem, PA; Expressions Day Camp, held on the George School campus in Newtown, PA; and The Explorer’s Club Summer Camp operated by New Behavioral Network in Cherry Hill, NJ and Wilmington, DE. "Summer camp is the perfect place for social skill acquisition because it provides opportunities to rehearse, practice, make mistakes and practice again,” says Stephanie DeSouza, director of AMICA.
Both AMICA and Expressions offer mainstreaming opportunities with kids in the traditional day camps that share their facilities, and skill-building field trips where their campers practice independence and socialization. “AMICA is specifically designed for children and teens on the high end of the autistic spectrum, and takes advantage of community settings year-round to facilitate a child’s ability to develop his social skills and connect with his peers,” DeSouza says. “We start each day with social skills activities focused on preparing the campers for their daily experiences and interactions with those around them. The rest of the day is filled with typical camp activities.”
Joelle, the mother of a 12-year-old Dragonfly Forest camper says that at the end of camp, her son’s first words were, “I can’t wait to come back next year.” She says, “We noticed positive changes almost immediately but as school started and previous teachers made comments, we continued to be excited.”
For Michael Polak, an 8-year-old Expressions camper, “this was his first real camp experience and he just loved every minute of it,” says his mother, Pamela. “His biggest thrill was swimming and passing the deep water test. He was so proud of himself.”