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Sending Your Neurodivergent Child to Camp

Decision time! The school year will soon be ending, and you need to find the right camp to keep your kids constructively occupied for the summer: special interest or general outdoors, day or overnight, New England or local? So many options, so many ways to go wrong; who would have thought you’d be missing the daily hump to and from day school?
    If you are the parent of a neurodivergent child, those concerns may seem almost frivolous. Rather, you may be wondering whether it makes sense to send your child to camp at all, even if the alternative may mean the financial hardship of taking a leave of absence from a job or hiring individual supervision.
    Most child development experts agree that, in general, going to summer camp is good for children. According to Audrey Monke, the author of Happy Campers: Nine Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults, the camp experience is particularly beneficial to neurodivergent children. While there are many iterations of neurodivergence, virtually all of them involve social and relationship difficulties, which summer camp is particularly well positioned to address. In school, the focus is on academics, in sports, on athletics; other than in a specialty program, however, in a summer camp, the focus is on relationships–actual relationships and relationship skills.
    So, what to look for? The short answer is a camp that can accommodate your child’s special needs. Dr. Gadi Fortune, a New Jersey psychologist, points out that much depends on where the child fits on a spectrum, regardless of the type of neurodivergence. “Whether autism spectrum disorder, learning disability or developmental delay,” he said, “is the child high functioning, does he show high or low independence? As a parent, you know the child best.”
    Dr. Fortune suggested tapping resources that you have already been using–such as affinity or advocacy groups–for recommendations. There are also secondary resources, such as schools or providers. “As the parent, you have some knowledge of these,” he added. “You have that background.”
    The first thing to ascertain is whether the camp is designed to accommodate the population to which your child belongs. Most places are required to have some accommodation. “There needs to be a protocol in place,” said Dr. Fortune, “but the parent needs to be careful with a cookie-cutter approach.”
    According to Ms. Monke, the right camp will have counsellors who will listen to the child and advocate for the child, based on his individual needs. While medical information, including any diagnosis, should be supplied to the medical staff, the counsellors need to be aware of what is going on from the child’s perspective.
 It is vital to talk to the camp director and to whoever is in charge of placing the campers. And, ask plenty of questions: What is the counsellor-to-camper ratio? What kind of training does the staff have? What is their experience with neurodivergent children? Does the camp emphasize demonstrations, hands-on learning and visual learning rather than just spoken instructions? Will there be a specific “go-to person” for the child? How does the camp deal with issues such as trouble sleeping, separation anxiety, meltdowns? Are there maps, charts, schedules and other visual aids that the child can use to orient himself? Are there quiet spaces for the child to access if he needs them? Does the camp teach or foster inclusion skills for everyone? Is the camp able to use whatever you have found that works at home if the child needs a break?
    Don’t be afraid to ask for references from families with children with issues similar to yours. And, be prepared to share information about your child with the staff—a well-prepared staff is more likely to support a positive experience for your child.
    But what about you? How do you deal with the anxiety of sending your precious, vulnerable child away? Dr. Fortune recommends that parents should take the opportunity to send the child away overnight to a more familiar place, such as to stay with grandparents or with cousins, both for the sake of the child and for the sake of the parent. “Be optimistic and retain a positive outlook. Rely on your strengths and what you have done before. Finally, address your anxiety. There is danger in overprotection, which can prevent your child from developing resilience,” he said. “It is a blessing that we live at a time when we have these resources and when there exists the research that can show us the way forward.” 

Sue Kleinberg is a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.

 

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