I often get calls from parents who start the dialogue with: ”this is going to be a hard one for you, but I really need your help!”
They proceed to tell me about their child and how wonderful he or she is, bright, outgoing, loves animals, but…. and then there is the hesitancy and sometimes, the choked sentence follows. He is somewhere on the spectrum and I really want him to learn to get along with others, be more independent, not get teased, just have fun…. I then follow with, “and you can use a break as well.”
And then the voice on the other end of the line goes from a bit choked up to a wash of tears.
I write today to simply say, you are not alone! There are so many families facing similar dilemmas of loving their children with passion — because they love so many things about them, who they are and what they have accomplished. They love their children because they are their parents and they are supposed to. And they love them with an asterisk — I love them but I am so exhausted.
The good news is that there are so many summer opportunities that provide the right environment for children with specific requirements. Whether it be a form of ADD or ADHD, defiant behavior, autism on all points on the spectrum, dyslexia, cancer, heart disease, peanut and tree nut allergies, crohns, diabetes or any other diagnosis on the alphabetic list of “conditions”, there is a safe, healthy environment for your child.
So the question is how to begin the process of finding just the right program?
1. Are they/you ready for overnight camp? As with any child, you must first determine if your child is ready to go away and/or if you believe a nudge to go away would be beneficial. Are they able to sleep out at a friend or relatives house? If the answer is yes, they are probably ready. If the answer is no, you have to determine if leaving the home for a period of time is a necessary “push” required to help your child become more independent and self-reliant.
2. Do your research. The first step in doing your research is to be comfortable about talking openly about your specific situation and desired outcome. You must find a reputable service to help guide you to safe, secure and appropriate programs. Talking to other parents with similar home situations in conjunction with speaking with a camp expert is critical. You want to talk with the director and other parents who have had children attend the different camps. You really want to make sure that the staff to camper ratio is very small. At least 3 to 1, and in many cases, 1 to 1 based on the circumstance of the need. The facility needs to be safe and in good condition.
3. Understand the camp community — special camp vs. mainstreaming. You want to have an excellent understanding of the camp community. Some families want their child to be in and among children with similar conditions so that they can get the therapeutic direction and assistance needed. They don’t want their child to feel different or ostracized. Some families want their child to be in a more mainstreamed environment so they will learn cues and behaviors from other children. There is no one right answer, but what is right for your philosophy.
However, if your child is being mainstreamed into a traditional camp, you want to make sure the environment is welcoming. For example, if the camp director or top staff has a special needs child, they will be empathetic to your needs and you can bet that the philosophy trickles down to the whole staff. You can consider the opportunity for hiring a shadow counselor that can be made available to your child in order to keep the staff/camper ratio to a safe number for your child.
4. Make sure the medical assistance is up to par. As to meds, every camp is passing out meds to a large population of the camp. You therefore, want to make sure that the medical staff is fully abreast of your child’s specific needs, you can package them for better administration, and be prepared for adjustments during the summer due to higher activity levels. Make sure the camp you select has a good doctor or RN on-premise. If there is no doctor on premise, you want to make sure that a pediatrician makes regular visits to the camp and has standing orders in town to accept campers any time of day or night. The doctor should be within 10 minutes of the camp. And the emergency medical facility should be within 20 minutes of the camp.
5. Programming should be varied and instructional. When your child has specific needs, you want to make sure that they are gaining self confidence through skill building. Whether the skills are dribbling a basketball, learning how to make a bed, or appropriate table manners, there should be a true sense of accomplishment by the end of the summer. You want it to be identifiable, measurable, and most certainly applause-worthy upon their return.
And while your child is off to camp, learning and being successful, please make sure to give yourself some time. Know that you have provided a fabulous opportunity and gift to your child, and you deserve the spare moments of peace and tranquility.