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!

A Path to Social Development- Northwood Style

There is nothing spontaneous or random about the acquisition of social skills. DSC06409 Observation, opportunity and reinforcement are required steps leading to the internalization of age-appropriate level of social functioning.

A much more direct level of social skills instruction is essential to assist students with perceptual deficits and social anxiety.  This added step is the focus of Camp Northwood’s formalized social skills training program.  To enhance their social abilities and navigate the social maze, campers are presented with specific social skills during social skills training sessions.

Prior to each summer, our curriculum team identifies a series of specific social related skills that form the basis for our social skills curriculum.  Weekly units are presented to each cabin group within our Northwood community.  These cabin groups are made up of 5-8 campers that share a similar social potential and are poised to experience their instruction, activities and social experiences together during the course of the summer.

Each cabin group is assigned a minimum of three counselors to insure that a positive level of support and structure is maintained in order to promote social growth.  Northwood counselors target and reinforce our social curriculum in consultation with our social skills team to help campers put theoretical skills to practical use.

Example of some of these specific skills addressed within Northwood’s social skills curriculum are:

  • Specific scripted language used to initiate or enter into a conversation or respond to typical age-appropriate interactions
  • Interpreting and use of non-verbal language cuing as part of a conversation
  • The importance of personal space when interacting with peers
  • Acknowledging the importance of other people’s interests
  • Identifying our personal strengths as well as those of others and using them to add value to our social community
  • Being a Friend 101- How to maintain friendships after they have been established

Camp Northwood recognizes that social skills cannot be taught in a vacuum.  Without opportunities to practice socializing with peers in an informal setting, these skills cannot be truly developed and in time internalized; becoming a part of established routine of socialization.  Following the formalized instruction of key social skills, perhaps the most important step in the process of social skills development in Northwood’s setting is what we call the “continued social dialogue”.

Staff Photo 2015There is no substitute for socialization.  Our campers receive constant feedback and support from our staff as they interact with the camp community throughout their day.  Identifying and reinforcing successful social skills strategies while providing redirection and guidance if necessary are essential to establishing comfort with newly learned social skill strategies.  The key to this aspect of social skills training rests squarely on the shoulders of staff members that play the role of primary caregivers/ instructors.

Northwood counselors recognize the priority placed on social skills development within the Camp Northwood community.  Specialists in any of our 40 traditional activities are social skills instructors first and foremost whether it is on the ball fields, down at the lake or walking to a meal with their campers.  After safety, there is nothing more important that social skills!

The environment and activities during which campers are practicing their social skills, using scripted social language and engaging in age appropriate non-verbal social rituals are critical.  Campers must be able to practice their social skills and receive feedback while engaged in structured activities as well as during informal periods and transitional times.

Meals, dances, talent shows, free swim periods and low structured time around the cabin are all critical times for the staff to support social interaction so that campers do not opt for the much safer option of isolation and avoidance.

With Northwood’s 2:1 camper/ counselor ratio and emphasis on social skill development, campers can be supported in these more potentially socially challenging settings.  It is during these low structured times that campers hone their skills and confidence creating success and a sense of belonging within the social community.

Social skills are much like artistic or athletic skills.  Once learned, then refined, there must be a continual process of practice or newly found skills will deteriorate.   For many children that struggle socially at home and in school, it is a challenge to find quality social opportunities that promote continued growth.  Furthermore, many school districts charged with providing social structure, instruction and opportunity for their students are not prepared to do so at a level necessary to avoid stagnation or regression.  Already overwhelmed with the task of finding adequate time to present state mandated curricula there just are not the resources or time.

For our Northwood campers, we encourage families to take advantage of the Northwood network and stay in touch with friends from the summer.  Periodic get-togethers and supervised communication using the latest technology can provide wonderful opportunities to supplement social opportunities with peers from the neighborhood and school.  Continuing the social dialogue is also a critical aspect of continued social skills development.  Parents, friends and family can help to provide positive feedback, encouragement and redirection if necessary to help children identify social successes and gain confidence in using scripted social strategies.  With each successful step taken by our children comes a greater likelihood that their isolated steps will develop into a path leading to achieving their social potential.


DSC08907  INDEPENDENT LIFE SKILLS TRAINING– 14 years ago a number of our long-time camper families requested that Camp Northwood expand its programming in order to create a bridge program that would provide transitional preparation for young adults approaching the end of their secondary school experience. There is, perhaps, no time in the life of a neurotypical young adult fraught with more anxiety. For the families of young adults with developmental delays, this transitional time can bring an overwhelming sense uncertainty and despair. The reality of the future is front and center and unless proactive steps are taken to develop the highest attainable level of independence, these students can drift for years awaiting placements and programs that may or may not meet their individual needs.

The Northwood Center (NWC) program was created to prepare learning challenged, socially immature and high functioning autistic spectrum students, ranging in age from 16-21, for life beyond secondary school. There are a variety of post-secondary options available to these students such as college programs focused on academics and/or vocational training as well as post-secondary transitional life skills training programs. In some cases families may look for a direct placement in a residential group home for their young adults. In each case, leaving home is a significant aspect of the “Next Step” and a transition that can be quite a challenge. Preparation for this transition is essential and is most effectively done away from home. For two to three summers leading up to this transition, NWC students practice living away from home; applying the independent living skills that they will be expected to perform throughout the rest of their lives. Specific NWC curriculum units addressing the following skills are included, but not limited to:

• Food & Nutrition
• Kitchen Safety
• Care of Clothing
• Apartment Safety & Maintenance
• Cleaning
• Money Skills & Budgeting
• Health & Fitness
• Personal Hygiene
• Social Safety & Self-Advocacy Skills
• Planning for Social/Recreational Events

The NWC’s program involves on-site instruction, field trips out into the community to establish relevance and then application on a day to day basis as needed in order to help our students refine and internalize their life skills.

The skills required to function independently away from home go far beyond the aforementioned isolated tasks that many students can develop functionality in a relatively short period of time. The true test of independence is whether students can successfully apply these skills in a social community in which they are required to interact with others on a regular basis. Social anxiety is a paralyzing condition that often is the greatest indicator of future independence. Unless this anxiety is addressed and reduced, it can have a significant impact on a student’s future life. The socially therapeutic environment of the NWC creates opportunities for students to refine their abilities to function successfully within a social environment. Camp Northwood’s formalized social skills training program is integrated into the NWC’s curriculum and the NWC students take part in the social/ recreational opportunities available to the entire Northwood community. Northwood’s supportive setting involves what we call a constant “Social Dialogue”. Students receive continual feedback from our staff; helping to identify successful social strategies as well as redirect and explore alternative social decisions when necessary. It is in this social environment that students can explore and refine their social skills and at the same time reduce levels of social anxiety. Our staff understands that every skill we teach needs to be framed in a social context- since without a strong social foundation, a student’s full potential cannot be achieved.

Too young to leave home, but facing the eventuality of doing so. Our students need time to prepare for this “Next Step” and we have found that many post-secondary programs prefer applicants that have successfully begun to make the transition by attending The Northwood Center. For more information pertaining to our programming, please visit our website: or call the Northwood office at 315-831-3621. We are currently interviewing applicants for the summer of 2015.