Camp for Autistic Spectrum Campers?

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.IMG_7998  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 campsIMG_6665 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!

3 Comments on “Camp for Autistic Spectrum Campers?

  1. I really liked this article. I forwarded to my friend who son is suffering from autism and she found it really helpful. Thanks for the article

  2. I wounder how to get my child to agree on camp he suffers from seperation issues to the point i have a hard time getting him to school he thinks i will.not be here when he gets home so his thoughts are to stay with me 24/7!!! He even wakes up several times a night to make sure mommy is here! Uggg! Havent slept a full night since he has been born and its been 9yrs!! Im tired! But arent we all!! Lol…The thoughts of going to a overnight camp will be just too much for him to handle but it sounds so wounderful to me for so many reasons! He will not attend biethday parties or events unless im able to go/ stay with him, he will go off and play but i must be in eyesight same for home he had kids here everyday but will not go to their homes, or play games outside unless i sit out there too!! Any advise ?

    • Severe separation anxiety can be difficult for children, families and programs. Unfortunately, there is no magic cure but rather a process or evolution that needs to take place to help the child move forward toward independence. The thought of residential summer camp may be too large of a leap at this point for you, but certainly a goal to work toward and the sooner a family begins this process, the easier it will be to achieve the goal. Likewise, the longer families wait to begin the process of fostering independence, the more difficult and painful it may become as children get set in their ways and routines.

      For families with children that experience high levels of separation anxiety, there needs to be a plan in place with achievable goals that will lead to healthy periods of separation. In many cases this plan should involve consulting a therapist to provide emotional support for both the child and parent during creation and implementation of this plan. There are two key factors to fostering independence in children as they learn to separate from parents. These factors are “Preparation” and “Practice”

      PREPARATION
      • Reduce anxiety. The key to reducing separation anxiety is to reduce the anxiety in the equation. This is done by making time spent away from parents predictable and familiar. Have a plan, rehearse the plan and then put the plan into action.
      • Established timeframe for success. Start with small periods of time to create quick successful experiences. These times apart might still create stress, but once quickly achieved can also produce success.
      • Get to know the environment in which the child is going to experience separation. Walk the site while talking about the coming event that will require separation. Explore the sight and reinforce how it is a safe location.
      • Create a structure for the time apart. Talk through what is going to happen from before to after the activity so that it becomes predictable.
      • Provide supports for the activity. Make sure that there will be another familiar adult there that can provide a sense of safety. This can be a relative at first and then a trusted adult thereafter.
      • Set goals for the event. Determine exactly how long the event is going to last and what exactly is going to take place during the event. Assign an activity or action to take place during the event to function as a marker for later discussion. (saying hello to someone, or shaking hands, asking a question, some action related to the activity)
      • Project confidence and stay positive. Talk about the great adventure, successes to be had, maturity and growth. Avoid phrases such as “I’m going to miss you” or ones that would question the possibility of success.
      • Once the experience of separation has been successfully completed, provide plenty of positive feedback and reinforce the pride you feel. Also make statements such as “you must feel great about achieving your goal!” “How does it feel to be a superstar!”

      PRACTICE
      • Make separation routine. Once is not good enough. Plan to practice separation frequently so that it becomes routine.
      • Slowly elongate the separation experiences but not too quickly. Slow successful progress is always best. These separations at first might be as quick at 5-10 minutes and slowly over a period of time work themselves up to overnights at a relative’s or friend of the family’s house.
      • Begin to plan events with your child so that they become anticipated adventures.
      • Once a child has become comfortable with overnights away from home over a period of time, then the thought of a residential camp does not seem so scary for both the parent and child.

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