How to Know if Your Child With Autism Is Ready for Summer Camp

summer camp

A Parent’s Perspective: 10 Things to Help Prepare Your Child for Camp

Now is the time of year when parents begin chatting about how they will keep their kids entertained this summer. It’ll be here before you know it, even though the ground has just begun to thaw. Popular camps fill up fast, so you must plan ahead.

Those of us with differently abled children understand that so much more preparation is required for our kids to have positive summer experiences. Many children with autism — and their parents — struggle without the routine of the school calendar year. Camps can be an excellent option for providing structure. 

Whether considering a day camp or overnight camp, here are a few things to consider as you plan for the not-so-far-away summer.

summer camp

Decide on the Kind of Camp

With so many camp options available, your first step will be to figure out what’s offered that would best fit your child. Researching different camps allows you to select the best fit based on your child’s interests, needs, personality type, and abilities.

For younger children, consider community day camps at places like the YMCA, vacation Bible schools, or simple neighborhood playdates.

If your child is older and yearning for more independence and adventure, they may be ready for an overnight camp experience.

Whatever you choose, remember it will be new and different for your child. Change can be hard, so ensure the program provides a clear daily schedule — including activities, breaks, snacks, meals, and transitions. Anytime the routine differs from the usual, it can be difficult for kids with autism.

Day Camps

The daily summer camp options are endless! Start by assessing your child’s unique interests — Legos? Dog agility training? Swimming? Is there a niche camp that your child would love? Finding a program that captures their attention and passion increases the chances of a positive experience. 

Overnight Camps

Being away from home overnight, sometimes for multiple nights, can be tough — especially for routine-loving kids. If your child is interested in an overnight camp, research thoroughly. Here is a list of some camps for kids with unique needs you may want to explore. Some are better equipped to accommodate special needs and medical interventions.

Therapy Camps or Intensives

Many therapy clinics and ABA providers offer summer programs focusing on developing specific skills through a themed, fun environment — like a handwriting camp incorporating Occupational Therapy (OT) exercises and activities. There are camps specializing in Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) devices, which could be an amazing setting for AAC users to connect with peers.

These therapy camps allow a refreshing change of pace while still intentionally targeting beneficial skills. They can be a great option, providing that “camp fun” experience with continued therapeutic support.

Prepare Your Child for Camp Success

Whether you decide to do a day camp, overnight camp, or a therapy camp, here are ten things to help prepare your child for a successful summer camp experience:

1. Assess Independence Skills: 

Evaluate how independent your child is with daily tasks like using the restroom, dressing, and feeding themselves, as camp will require a degree of self-care ability. If your child needs additional assistance, look into adaptive camps that offer one-on-one aides and nursing staff on-site. 

You may also practice separating from your child for extended periods of time if your child struggles with separation anxiety. Do practice runs to get them comfortable being away from you.

2. Discuss Expectations and Role-Play Scenarios:

Most children, especially those with autism, thrive when they understand expectations. Whatever program you choose, provide your child with a clear understanding of the daily camp schedule: activities, breaks, snacks, meals, and transitions between activities and living situations if it’s an overnight camp. 

Before camp begins, it’s helpful to paint a picture or tell a story of what the experience may be like for your child. If visual schedules or social stories have been useful tools in the past, use them again to illustrate camp life. Role-playing potential situations like asking for help, being flexible when plans change, and resolving conflicts with peers can also be immensely valuable preparation. Building this foundational understanding can help ease anxiety.

3: Arrange a Camp Visit: 

If possible, tour the camp facilities ahead of time so your child can become familiar with the setting, staff, and routines. Allowing them to see the camp environment firsthand, rather than just discussing it, will help build an understanding of what to expect and how to navigate the experience. 

During the visit, explain transitions between activities, point out locations for different events, and walk through daily routines. This visual preparation can ease anxiety about the new experience by removing some unknowns. Clearly understanding expectations — what they can anticipate and what will be expected — will help ensure a successful camp transition. 

4. Develop Social Skills: 

A major part of being in a peer group like school, camp, or even playing around the neighborhood is understanding social cues and socially appropriate behavior. Camp environments heavily involve group activities and peer interaction.

Teaching your child essential social skills can lead to a much more positive camp experience. Practice things like meeting new people, making eye contact and smiling when greeting others, taking turns during games, and joining group activities (even if not their most preferred). Strong social skills will enable your child to engage with peers and staff meaningfully and constructively. 

5. Establish a Communication System: 

Decide how your child will communicate their needs at camp — verbally, using visual supports, an AAC device, etc. Ensure camp staff fully understand your child’s communication methods and provide access to any of those tools or devices they require.

It’s also essential to establish how you will effectively communicate with staff should any questions or issues arise during the camp experience. Consider providing some upfront education, not just on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but also on your specific child’s preferences, needs, and potential behavior triggers. Staff should know exactly how to respond if challenges occur, including when and how to immediately contact you if necessary. 

This open line of communication helps prevent misunderstandings and allows staff to support your child throughout their time at camp properly. Clarity is vital for a smooth, successful experience. 

6. Identify Sensory Needs: 

Predicting sensory triggers is sometimes hard, but you can equip your child with strategies. Whether overstimulation stems from noise, crowds, bright lights, or other sources, your child is likely learning coping techniques through ABA. Using headphones, sunglasses, or taking breaks away from stimuli are all positive ways to self-regulate. 

Provide comprehensive information to camp staff about your child’s sensory preferences, potential meltdown triggers, and effective calming strategies. Sharing this level of detail ensures camp staff can properly support your child’s needs and provide any necessary accommodations or preventative actions while they’re in a new environment. 

7. Request Accommodations Early: 

If your child requires any accommodations, request them well in advance. Early requests may include dietary restrictions, modified activities, designated quiet spaces to reduce overstimulation, or other adjustments. Ensure camp staff receive proper training in autism awareness and how to implement effective support strategies tailored to your child’s needs.

If your child has medical issues, make arrangements to coordinate with the camp’s on-site nurse or healthcare staff. Discuss protocols for medication administration, managing procedures, and sharing any other essential medical information to ensure your child’s health and safety throughout their stay.

Advocating early allows time to make accommodations and educate staff appropriately. With open communication and planning, the camp can create an environment set up for your child’s success.

8. Pack Familiar Items: 

Let your child bring beloved items from home — special toys, favorite books, soothing music, or calming fidget tools. These familiar objects can provide tremendous comfort and help them self-regulate in the new camp environment. Don’t underestimate the relaxing power of a treasured stuffed animal or the focusing effects of a preferred fidget spinner. Packing a few cherished items in their camp bag can go a long way in easing anxiety over being away from home. At the same time, it gives your child access to calming favorites that facilitate positive behaviors and engagement at camp.

9. Develop a Behavior Plan: 

If your child experiences challenging behaviors from time to time, have a comprehensive behavior plan ready for camp staff to implement. Work with your child’s BCBA to create a plan that outlines positive reinforcement strategies and guidelines for appropriately addressing specific behaviors.

Providing this plan in advance allows staff to be fully prepared. They’ll understand how to encourage desired behaviors through positive reinforcement and safely manage escalated situations. Though it requires some initial coordination, having a detailed, vetted plan ensures staff can respond confidently and consistently — supporting your child’s success instead of feeling unprepared if difficulties arise.

This proactive preparation may be critical for a positive overall experience. With a thoughtful plan, staff can create an environment designed to bring out your child’s best. 

10. Teach Safety Skills: 

Safety awareness and following directions are major focuses in most ABA programs. At camp, children may encounter activities outside their typical routines, such as ropes courses, water sports like kayaking, or heightened needs to stay with the group during transitions.

It’s important to reinforce skills for recognizing potential dangers while still promoting your child’s independence. Practice identifying unsafe situations and reviewing rules for activities that may pose new risks. This preparation empowers your child to make safe choices while enjoying camp with increased autonomy.

Camp staff should also be well-versed in your child’s safety protocol. Provide any necessary training so they understand your child’s specific needs and can responsibly supervise while facilitating new experiences. Open communication allows staff to strike the right balance between risk prevention and independence.

Plan An Incredible Camp Experience in Advance with an ABA Provider You Trust

The key to a successful summer camp experience is thorough assessment of your child’s needs, open communication with camp staff, equipping your child with necessary skills and tools, and developing plans for providing ongoing flexibility and support.

If you’re considering camp this summer and have concerns, consult with your child’s BCBA or ABA provider. A provider like ABA Connect can develop specific programming and goals tailored to prepare your child in advance. An appropriate behavior plan with positive reinforcement strategies is also invaluable — even if challenging behaviors never arise, having a plan in place ensures staff can respond confidently.

As parents, we must always be prepared to adapt to our child’s individual needs. Being ready includes making necessary adjustments to camp selections and activity choices as their skills progress. With comprehensive preparation, open communication with staff, and strengthening your child’s skillset, you can ensure they have an incredible camp experience while meeting their unique needs.

With intentional planning and an ideal camp program, you and your child will be ready for an enriching, growth-filled summer!

What are your biggest questions or concerns about finding the right summer camp fit? 

We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. If you found this post helpful, please feel free to like, share, and follow us for more insightful content on autism and ABA therapy.

If a positive, play-based approach to ABA appeals to you, we invite you to reach out to ABA Connect. The friendly team at ABA Connect is always ready to help answer your questions.

Disclaimer: While I am a consultant writing on behalf of ABA Connect, my child is not a current client. The views and experiences shared in this blog post are entirely from a parent’s perspective. My goal is to provide informative content and insights based on my personal experiences, as well as interviews conducted with the staff at ABA Connect.

Note: The information provided in this article is for general guidance and does not replace professional advice. Please consult with a healthcare professional or therapist for personalized guidance.

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