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Summer Camps & Special Needs

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Choosing the right summer camp for your child with special needs

Debra Elbaum, M.D.

Inside this article...

  • Types of camps for kids with special needs
  • How to choose the best camp
  • Questions to ask
  • Camps for adult children with special needs

"The most amazing experience ever!" raves E.G. about the eight-week overnight camp experience her daughter had at the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. Her daughter has cerebral palsy and speech delays, uses a wheelchair, and is not toilet trained. E.G. adds that after the summer her daughter "made more gains than she ever had." They are already counting down the days until next summer.

The Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah serves teens approximately 13 to 18 years old with mild to moderate developmental delays, autism spectrum disorder and neurological impairments.

Summer camp can be enriching for all children -- with and without special needs. But with so many programs available, including for those with special needs, how does one choose?

Different types of camps

  • Some camps serve children with a specific need, such as diabetes, autism spectrum disorder or Down syndrome. Benefits of these speciality camps include the opportunity to befriend others with similar needs, and the opportunity for the camp to teach specific skills and coping strategies.
  • Other camps welcome a broad range of special needs, allowing for a diverse environment where individual needs can be met. Camp Arrowhead in Natick, MA, for example, serves individuals age 5 to adult with disabilities ranging from ADHD to a terminal illness, says John Marshall, program coordinator at the Natick Recreation Department.
  • Inclusive camps serve children with and without disabilities. Parents whose children are integrated academically during the school year may choose an inclusive camp, recognizing that their child enjoys and succeeds in this type of environment.
Summer camps can be day camps or residential (overnight) camps, and can vary in length from less than one week to multiple weeks.

Choosing a camp

Camps may be run by a variety of organizations such as town recreation departments, schools, private organizations or non-profit organizations. In addition, camps that are American Camp Association (ACA) accredited have met ACA standards for camp operation, program quality, and health and safety of campers and staff.

To find the best fit for your child, keep in mind your child's age, needs, and interests, as well as practical factors such as cost, duration and location.

Howard Blas, director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, finds that parents often have questions about supervision, medical issues, meals, and communication, but that most important is reassurance about their child's health and safety. Parents want to know how experienced camp staff members are with their child's particular disability and that the staff knows what to do if a problem arises.


Especially if their child has a physical disability, parents may inquire about accessibility features of the following areas at camp:
  • Buildings -- for example, dining facilities, main lodge, art or nature centers
  • Cabins -- in addition to accessibility, campers may require air-conditioning or electrical outlets for breathing or feeding machines
  • Trails or paths around the property
  • Bathrooms -- including toilets, sinks, and showers
  • Waterfront or pool
  • Transportation -- if the campers go on field trips


It's important to know who will be with your child every day, socializing with and helping care for them. You might want to know:
  • How the staff and counselors are hired and trained
  • The ratio of campers to counselors
  • During camp, how staff are supervised and supported
  • If cabin counselors attend all of the activities with the campers
  • Whether there any other helpers and how those helpers are trained: for example, local high school students volunteer at Camp Arrowhead, each working one-on-one as a camper's "buddy"

Medical and behavioral considerations

When her daughter developed strep throat at camp, E.G. didn't rush to collect her. Instead, she relied on the medical staff to treat her daughter. "At some point, you have to let other people take care of (your child)," she says. Based on your child's needs, you can tailor your questions about how the camp handles medical and behavioral issues.
  • What medical staff (doctors, nurses, etc.) will be present at camp? Are other health professionals such as physical, speech, or occupational therapists on site?
  • What types of illnesses and issues are they trained to handle?
  • How are medications given?
  • What behavioral training does the staff have?
  • How are existing behavioral plans put into action?
  • If the situation requires it, can you provide the camp with additional training or support people to meet your child's needs?


You will certainly want to hear about all the fun your child is having, as well as how the camp handles your child's medical and emotional issues! If you know your child can't provide a full report, ask the camp how they give updates to parents.


Reading a camp brochure or touring a camp will give you an idea about the activities offered. Be sure to express any concerns you have about your child taking part in any specific activity.

Applying to a camp

Everyone has the same goal: a successful camp experience that makes the camper want to return the following summer. To accomplish this, most camps will have a thorough intake and evaluation process to make sure the camp and camper are a good fit with each other. Rarely, a child will need to leave camp. According to Blas, these instances usually involve times when medications need to be adjusted, or when a camper has sleep, behavioral or aggression issues that are disruptive to other campers.

Adults with special needs can enjoy camp, too

A number of camps serve young adults and adults with special needs. For example, Easter Seals offers camps for both children and adults across the country. Camps run by other organizations may also be appropriate. The internet is a good way to begin your search; you can also ask families and staff at other programs your adult child attends.

Enjoy the summer!

Whether at a day or overnight camp, your child will have a wonderful experience. With his or her days filled with friendly faces and new opportunities, parents should get a chance for some respite, with opportunities to reconnect with each other or spend time focused on their other children. In E.G.'s case, after she settles her daughter in at "her summer home" and her son in at another camp, she heads to an overnight camp in New Hampshire where she has been the waterfront director for over 30 years.

Debra Elbaum, M.D., is the mother of three children and lives in Massachusetts.