How to find a summer camp for your child with special needs

If your child has special needs or unique circumstances, you might think that the process of finding the right summer camp falls anywhere on a scale from mildly terrifying to completely overwhelming to absolutely impossible. You might even think that, at best, you are looking for a camp that will “let” your camper come, or one that will expect your child to do all the trying when it comes to fitting in with the world around them. But relax, because it doesn’t have to be that way at all.

Today, there are camps out there for all kinds of kiddos, so don’t get discouraged.  If you know what you’re looking for, and you know what to ask, your search is going to lead you to the right place for your child and before you know it, a fabulous summer will be waiting.

 There are plenty of things on the basic list of questions to ask when selecting a camp, but when you have a unique camper, you’ll want to add a few things, including:

-What is the general population of the campers?

-Is my child going to be the only one with his/her particular challenge/difference? If so, have you had other campers like mine in the past (and can I speak to their family as a reference)?

-Was their attendance successful? If it was, did the camp or family do anything specific to enable that success?

-If it wasn’t, can you share some of the reasons why and how it will be different this time around for my kid?

You’ll also want to know who your camper will be placed with. At a camp that isn’t specific to your child’s individual circumstance, some of the likely options might be:

  • A “self-contained” group where all four hard-of-hearing campers are together in their own group, separate from other campers
  • A “self-contained” group where all the special-needs campers of a certain age (for example, 5-9 or 10-13) are together, regardless of particular circumstance
  • A “mainstream” group where your 12-year-old visually impaired daughter is placed with all the “typical” 12-year old girls, or
  • An “inclusion” group where she is in the group with all the typical girls but she also has a staff aide to assist her (while the general counselor for the group focuses on everyone else)

There are variations among these options, and your camper’s experience will vary greatly based on the type of group in which he/she is ultimately placed. You’ll want to know very clearly if the camp you’re considering will incorporate your input into that decision, or if it’s “their way or the highway.”

In today’s day of “a camp for every kid and every interest,” camps may have differing opinions on their need to accommodate. Are they flexible about how your camper can be grouped to allow for the greatest possibility of success? Do they have a “this is how we do it, and he is welcome to join us if he can fit this group structure” mentality? Or, is this really not a good match? If so, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere. Ultimately, you and the camp have to be comfortable with your camper’s attendance. Forcing a square peg into a round hole doesn’t usually work out for either side.

Want to know a secret? The key to finding the right match of camper and camp is simply open, honest communication. Just as you would be upset if a camp program was completely different than what was advertised, the camp staff and leadership will be frustrated if the camper who shows up on day one isn’t anything like the camper they were expecting. If the camp doesn’t ask for information you think is critical for your child’s success, provide it anyway. If specific accommodations are going to be needed, call and speak with someone before submitting a registration form; ask them your questions and encourage them to ask theirs. A good camp will be equally open and honest about their needs and concerns with you, so it’s important to hear that information for what it is – the best of intentions on their part to help find the right fit for both sides.

Camp is fun! And the journey to finding the right one for your child can be, too. For you, it’s all about your camper being happy, safe and included in a positive, accepting place. Find a camp that agrees with that philosophy, and everything will be s’mores and smiles.

Emily Golinsky is the Executive Director at Camp Starfish ( in Rindge, which provides summer and year-round programming for children with significant emotional, behavioral, social and learning difficulties.

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