Parents of Disabled Children Often Fearful to Send Them to Camp

A child in a wheelchair takes a swing ride. A ten-year-old who communicates by picking out pictures on a signboard goes canoeing. A medically fragile twelve-year-old who wears a helmet for seizures tries horseback riding. These children can and do go to summer camp.

The fact that they attend camp at all is due to the courage of their parents.

Parents of children with severe disabilities like autism and profound developmental delays are usually terrified of sending them away to summer camp, according to Daniel Falk, executive director of Camp Huntington in High Falls, New York.

Camp Huntington, now in its 47th year of operation, is one example of a top-rated summer camp designed for children with special needs.

Many parents have never left their special needs children overnight, much less at camp. They worry that their medically fragile child will be exposed to dirt in an outdoor environment and communicable illnesses from other campers. Such parents have often spent years on emotional roller coasters dealing with frequent hospitalizations and one life-threatening crisis after another. They are reluctant to use caretakers even at home. Their teenage son still wears diapers and requires medications every hour. Their ten-year-old daughter uses only sign language. How can they be sure that someone else will understand their child and respond appropriately if she is hurt or sick? They also worry that their vulnerable child will be abused or bullied by other campers.

"Our kids often have gentle, naive and vulnerable personalities," Director Falk says. They are children who have been sheltered in an oasis of parental love and care. Many parents have made great sacrifices in their careers and social lives to take heroic care of their children and protect them every step of the way. Some of the normal separations of childhood: the first sleepover party, Girl Scout Camp, a week at grandmother's house - have never taken place.

"Some of our campers have never been away from home, even though they are teenagers," Mr. Falk said. It is a huge step for parents to enroll their child even in Camp Huntington's six-day mini-camp program.

However, a summer camp like Camp Huntington, designed around a system of "adaptive therapeutic recreation," can provide special needs children with unique benefits.

First, just going away to camp is a huge step in building self-confidence in a special needs child. For the first time away from home, the child has positive experiences and makes friendships entirely on his own in a completely new environment.

Secondly, camp allows a new set of professionals in education and childhood development to work with the child with "fresh eyes." As Mr. Falk says, "We look for hidden abilities. We try to find the 'pearl' in each child." Finding the pearl is about discovering each child's unique abilities and maximizing his potential as an individual. A counselor may see that a child with severe mental handicaps is ready to learn to tie his shoes, use the toilet, eat with a fork, or even tell time. Another counselor can help a child with Asperger Syndrome overcome his fear of social activities or anxiety about trying new things like crafts. Each new skill mastered and each old fear overcome is a small, incremental step toward more independence and self-confidence.

A good camp for special needs children has a long intake process in which the parents, teachers and counselors from the child's school and other home support people work closely with the camp professionals to design a program structured for the individual child. It is vital that special needs children not regress over the summer; however, it is even better if they learn new skills and make more progress. Each child's needs are different. Children with pervasive development disorders and Asperger Syndrome may need an emphasis on communication and socialization through occupational and physical therapy. Children with Attention Deficit Disorder need a very structured program, special academic learning aids, and regular physical exercise outdoors. Children with mild to severe mental disabilities may need extra instruction in life skills. Each child must be physically safe no matter what the activity. Each child must feel emotionally safe and free to express himself. To achieve these goals, some children require a one-on-one counselor at all times.

A top special needs camp can become a holistic learning environment where each activity offers learning opportunities. During a hike, for example, counselors may teach children their colors by looking at birds and their numbers by counting pebbles.

However, as Director Falk says, no one should forget that the main reason to go to summer camp is to have fun. He wants his campers to laugh and be silly like campers everywhere. They can enjoy all the traditional fun of water sports, hiking, music, arts and crafts, campfires, S'mores and sing-a-longs. They can make new friends and share experiences in a healthy beautiful outdoor environment.

Parents of special needs children, like all parents of campers, can come to camp on visiting days, send care packages and letters, and make those fearful phone calls to their child's counselors. Like parents everywhere, they want reassurance that all is well after they fearfully drop their child off. It's always a relief when their counselor phones to say, "Yes, your child's doing great! He's a really neat kid and we love having him here! He's had a wonderful first day at camp! He can hardly wait to try some more new things tomorrow."

Camp Huntington serves the following special needs: Learning and Developmental Disabilities, Attention Deficit and Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorders (ADD / ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorders, Asperger's Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disabilities (PDD), and other special needs.