Eric, Jaynie and I just returned from 3 days with 5,000 other camp professionals. When you spend your entire year getting ready for the summer, working in an office with two other people, it’s extremely important to take opportunities to share ideas with others in your field. We’re lucky. Because we are a part of the CampGroup family, we often get together with 13 other sets of camp directors to discuss “best practices” and to support each other in our work. However, nothing compares to the American Camp Association’s Tri-State Camp Conference held annually in March. It is an amazing opportunity for us to talk with other camp directors, to learn from each other and for us to share our own knowledge and experience with our peers.
This year, Eric and I presented two sessions. The first was called, “What is Asperger’s and What Does it Look Like at Camp?” We believe passionately in helping others understand more about Asperger’s – especially at camp. Eric and I have worked at many “traditional” summer camps where children on the spectrum are expected to “fit in” with their typical peers without the camp staff truly appreciating these amazing kids. We want to help camp professionals understand what kinds of training and accommodations are needed to help a child with AS really thrive. More importantly, we believe that not all camps are truly equipped to make the necessary changes in their community, program and staffing to best work with campers on the spectrum. We encourage our colleagues to ask questions of new camp families and to work together as a team with parents to make sure that camp will be the right fit. Unless camp professionals understand AS well, they cannot make these decisions.
Our second session was a 3-hour workshop where Eric and I spent more time focusing on the idea of “fit”. We spoke to a group of camp professionals about helping families find the right camp for their child. We encouraged them to explore the way they gather information about perspective campers so that they can give parents honest feedback about how successful they feel a child may be in their camp community. We suggested that having a camper “get by” or “survive” was not good enough; we believe that all campers deserve a setting in which they can THRIVE!
As always, teaching and learning is both exciting and energizing and we returned to our offices in Philadelphia with many new ideas and plans for this summer and beyond! We’re grateful to be in a profession that values continuing education!
In the world of Asperger’s, there has been a lot of buzz for the past two weeks. The NY Times published an article, “New Definition of Autism Will Exclude Many, Study Suggests”, and our inboxes were suddenly full. Everyone wanted to weigh in on this important moment in time … a time when the Asperger’s Diagnosis might disappear. Or will it? At Camp Akeela, many of our campers proudly wear the “Asperger’s badge” and feel like the diagnosis gives them a sense of identity. It makes them feel like they belong to something important. For many, it’s the only group with which they really identify.
Then they come to camp. Akeela provides our campers with an opportunity to belong to a community and to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Many of our campers do not have a diagnosis or they don’t identify with the one they were given. Nonetheless, they connect with one another. Does a diagnosis matter? Unfortunately, it does matter for practical purposes. Without a diagnosis, people worry that they will no longer get much-needed educational or psychological services (and funding). All children deserve the support they need to reach their optimum potential. It’s a shame that a diagnosis is what determines that. Wouldn’t it be nice if children were able to get the services they need without having to fight for them every step of the way? It would make such a difference if educators and those in the mental health fields understood the intricacies of the behaviors and emotions BEHIND the diagnoses they use to determine eligibility.
A recent article in Psychology Today (here is the link) by Michael Unger highlights how meaningful camp is for children. The author states that, based on his research about resiliency, camp clearly teaches campers life skills that can’t be taught elsewhere. Of course, we agree and have felt strongly about this for as long as we’ve been campers ourselves. For our campers (many of whom have Asperger’s Syndrome) this is even more true.
Our campers often tell us that they don’t fit in at school, in their communities, even with their siblings. Camp Akeela provides them with an opportunity to meet other children like them who understand what their world is like. At camp, they can be themselves without having to work so hard to fit in. Besides meeting peers who understand them, campers at Akeela learn about others. They understand that the world is larger than themselves and that they can be a part of it if they open up their minds. Unger writes, “Perhaps best of all, camps offer kids a chance to feel like they belong. All those goofy chants and team songs, the sense of common purpose and attachment to the identity that camps promote go a long way to offering children a sense of being rooted.”
All camps give campers a chance to learn how to be independent. This includes taking care of themselves (showering, brushing their teeth, remembering to use deodorant), taking care of their belongings (making their own beds, folding their own laundry), and taking care of their new relationships they have formed at camp (learning to say sorry, welcoming new friends into a group, showing interest in those around them). These are all life skills that all children must learn. For our campers, we feel these skills are even more important. Sometimes, as parents, we lose our voices with our children and begin to feel less effective. At camp, children are empowered to do the things their parents have been asking them to do on their own … sometimes because a new (“cool”) counselor is asking them to do it, sometimes it’s because the whole group is doing it, but usually, we find that campers do these tasks because they want to know they can. And when they leave camp, they feel great about themselves.
Camp isn’t just about learning how to sail or make friendship bracelets … it never was. It has always been and always will be about helping children become independent and resilient people. It is what we are most proud of as camp directors.
In our last post, we talked about why camp is such a unique and valuable experience for kids with special needs. We also outlined a few steps to help parents start looking for the best camp for their child.
Once you’ve done some self-reflection about what you’re looking for and conducted some research on what’s out there, you’re ready to take the next step, which is to speak with the camp directors. These are the people who will have ultimate responsibility for your child’s well-being. You should feel comfortable enough to speak candidly with them about your family. Most of all, they should understand your child’s needs and be passionate about changing the lives of young people!
Questions to ask the camp directors:
What is the camper to staff ratio? How many staff members and campers live in each bunk?
How do you recruit and train the staff? What are your basic requirements for age and related experience?
What are the living accommodations? Will there be enough space to accommodate my child’s needs?
What can you tell me to confirm that you really understand my child’s special needs?
What is the application process?
Are you willing to meet me and my family?
Tell me about how you got involved with this camp?
How will you help prepare my child (and me) for camp before the summer?
How will the directors and staff communicate with me while my child is at camp?
Is there flexibility in the camp program to accommodate a challenging day or a need that my child has?
How much structure and choice are built into daily activities?
The camp experience is an incredible gift to give your child. You’re now well on your way to finding the camp that’s the best fit for your camper!
Overnight summer camp teaches skills in a variety of disciplines – sports, arts, nature and the like. However, the enduring value of summer camp is not the skills that it teaches, but the values and traits of character that it imparts. A camp experience teaches children to work together more cooperatively, resolve conflicts, assume responsibility, and develop self-reliance and self-confidence.
Parents of kids and teens with special needs may be reluctant to send their children to sleep-away camp. Yet, these children – specifically those who struggle socially – stand to benefit the most from the right camp experience. More than anything, great camps teach socialization skills. Overnight camp is an environment in which children learn about living, working, and playing together in a supportive community. Many children form their fondest memories and their deepest friendships at camp.
Of course, not every camp is equipped to address the specific needs of every child. Finding the right camp is paramount to a successful experience. Here are some suggestions for navigating the process:
Selecting a Summer Camp for Your Child
The first step should be to discuss the process as a family. Make sure you and your child are on the same page. It’s never a good idea for him/her to find a brochure in the mail before you’ve talked about camp!
Questions to ask yourself and your family
What is on my “must-have” list? (e.g. certain program offerings, minimum session length, …)
Will my child “regress” without certain interventions?
What type of environment is necessary for my child to make progress in his social/emotional/educational development?
Is my child prepared to live in a more independent way?
What kind of support does my child need to be successful?
What are my goals in sending my child to camp?
How important is it to me what the other campers are like? How similar to my child do they have to be in order for him/her to fit in well?
You’re now ready to do some research. Use the American Camp Association, the Web or resources within your community to identify potential camps. Request and review camp websites and brochures.
In our next post: Questions to ask the camp directors. Stay tuned!
Many of you probably saw this article on the front page of last Monday’s New York Times. It’s great to see any story about Asperger’s getting such prominent real estate in “The Gray Lady”. This one in particular brings attention to a important topic: young adults with Asperger’s (or NLD or any others on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum) navigating romantic relationships.
So much of what we do at Camp Akeela is to help our campers develop and practice appropriate social skills. For many of our kids, Akeela is the one place in their lives where they feel truly accepted by their peers, which allows them to form uniquely meaningful friendships and connections to others. When we first started the camp in 2008, our oldest campers were 16 years old – completing 9th grade. The following summer, we had so much demand for teenagers that we expanded the program to include boys and girls finishing 10th grade. We’ve found that camp has taken on even more significance in the lives of our campers as they move through adolescence and the world gets even more complicated socially.
It quickly became evident to us that we could do even more to help prepare these amazing kids for adulthood. Towards that end, we started a new program last summer, called Beyond Akeela. It’s for boys and girls finishing 11th and 12th grades and is essentially a hybrid of a traditional camp CIT program and a life-skills training experience. We had 18 participants in Beyond Akeela’s inaugural summer and it was a huge success. In addition to having an amazing summer at camp, they also came away with concrete skills and experience in the areas of job readiness, managing money, cooking & nutrition, college options and appropriate peer relationships. They toured colleges, attended cooking and banking classes, volunteered in a variety of community service efforts, organized and led in-camp activities, discussed relationships and sexuality, went shopping and did their own laundry, challenged themselves on outdoor adventure trips, and much more. The program culminated in a 4-day trip on which they put all their newfound skills to work while living independently (with staff supervision!) in condominiums.
Overall, it was a huge success and a program we look forward to offering for many years to come. Reading the New York Times article last week allowed us to reflect on and be thankful for the role we may play in helping a very deserving group of people find what we all seek in life: loving, fulfilling and reciprocal relationships with people who value and respect us.