Special Needs Summer Camps

Senior Editor, Porter Sargent Handbooks

When one considers residential summer camps, thoughts naturally turn to plentiful outdoor activities, both on land and in the water, along with a complement of enrichment activities that often includes artistic pursuits. Decades ago, these opportunities for summertime fun in the sun were available to "normally" developing children only. Increasingly, however, specialized recreational camps now offer similar activities to various special-needs populations.

A glance through the pages of Porter Sargent Handbooks' biennial Guide to Summer Programs or a search through our summer programs reflects the popularity of these special-needs programs. In many cases, these camps serve a specific special-needs population. Campers in such a setting tend to feel comfortable and at ease, as they are able to share camp life with boys and girls facing similar life challenges. During the school year, many special-needs children feel ostracized at times because of their condition, so this feeling of inclusion represents a welcome change.

The breadth of summer special-needs summer camps is impressive. Camps listed in the Guide serve children and adolescents with cancer, deafness and hearing impairment, diabetes, emotional disturbances, HIV or AIDS, learning disabilities (including attentional disorders), intellectual disabilities, a wide spectrum of orthopedic and neurological disorders, pervasive development disorder (including Asperger's syndrome and various points along the autistic spectrum), speech and language disorders, and visual impairments. In addition, the Guide and our database list a selection of weight-loss programs that address the needs of overweight and obese young people.

Fun and recreation are central to virtually all of these specialized camps. In many cases, however, care and management of the camper's condition are also integral to the camp's program. Diabetes programs, for instance, typically incorporate instruction on topics relating to diet, exercise and insulin. Similarly, programs dedicated to those with hearing impairments or speech and language disorders often teach campers how to properly use assistive devices. Weight-loss camps place significant emphasis on positive lifestyle changes, specifically those relating to diet and exercise.

These specialized camps also often serve an invaluable function for families of special-needs campers by providing a short break for parents and other caregivers. The week or more of the camp session offers a much-needed mental and physical respite to those entrusted with the care of special-needs children. Some camps also allow brothers and sisters to attend camp alongside their special-needs siblings.

Program fees for special-needs camps are often significantly less than traditional residential camps, and rates may be calculated on a sliding scale based on each family's income. Generous "camperships" or grants may help defray costs for children that would otherwise be unable to attend camp, and some camps are even offered free of charge thanks to contributions from a sponsoring charitable foundation.

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