Summer vacation for students on the autistic spectrum can be extremely challenging at best. The lack of routine and structure during the summer increase general anxiety, while a lack of social and recreational programming can further isolate children already trailing their peers in social development. Yet, this traditional school break can also present a unique opportunity for socially anxious and isolated students to immerse themselves in the socially rich culture of summer camp. As an added bonus, these same students develop their independence as they learn how to transition away from home.
All too often, parents of autistic spectrum children are unaware of summer camps that strive to provide socially therapeutic programming to this unique population. The general inclination is to feel that their children are not ready or able to make the break from home in order to experience what thousands of neurotypical children experience each summer in the camp setting.
Yet, there are camps out there that specialize in providing exactly what autistic spectrum campers need in order to maximize their summer camp experience. Social skills, just as independence, cannot be learned in a vacuum, or at home. With the appropriate supports in place, there is no better setting for social skill development than a summer camp.
What are these supports and how should families gauge a camp’s ability to meet their child’s cognitive and socially developmental needs? The criteria in the following list are critical factors to consider when families are seeking an appropriate camp for their autistic spectrum child.
Does the camp, their administration and cabin counselors:
- Understand the developmental needs of children on the spectrum; in particular the non-verbal processing and other learning challenges experienced by this population of students?
- Provide direct and formalized social skill instruction as well as ongoing support to reinforce their curriculum in order to help students internalize social strategies?
- Emphasize social skill development as a critical goal for the camp community and use traditional activities as the vehicle for achieving social goals?
- Recognize and acknowledge the debilitating impact that anxiety has on the performance level of autistic spectrum children?
- Create a daily structure and routine to reduce anxiety and in doing so, maximize social engagement?
- Provide age appropriate social opportunities for campers so that they can apply social skills in structured and supervised settings?
- Maintain a continuous social dialogue between campers and their counselors designed to reinforce skills or redirect behavior in real time to provide immediate feedback?
- Foster a community environment in which non-competitive and non-judgmental programming deemphasizes competition, reduces anxiety and celebrates unique interests and skills?
Age appropriate social skill development for students on the autistic spectrum is challenging at best. There are too many factors related to processing, anxiety, rigidity and immaturity to take your chances with programs not specifically prepared to provide the necessary supports and structure to foster success and growth. When researching camps to determine their ability to meet the needs of your child, don’t hesitate to ask plenty of questions and be honest and upfront about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. It is in the family’s, camp’s and, most importantly, camper’s best interests to find the right summer camp community to meet their individual needs.
There is no one camp out there that is able to meet the needs of every child. The community of camps is as diverse as the children we serve! Yet, there is a camp out there for every child! When a family finds the right match, their children find a second home that can provide a lifetime of wonderful memories as well as a community that they can call their own!