Preparing a Child With Autism for Summer Camp
January 9, 2018 by Sylvia van Meerten

Similar to most, parents of children with autism are also looking for engaging summer experiences, and summer camp is a tempting idea for many. Summer camp has historically been a hallmark of childhood, where camp songs, archery, beaded bracelets, and questionable food have combined forces to create magical summertime memories for generations of children. Unfortunately, a typical summer camp experience is not always accessible for children on the autism spectrum because of their anxiety and communication challenges.

However, when a camp experience is successful, it can make a world of difference to a child with autism because they build confidence, develop independence and join a community. These are the same reasons that summer camp is so beneficial to neurotypical children. Parents of children with autism can support a summer camp experience for their children with adequate preparation for the camper, as well as the camp staff.

Autism and Anxiety

Anxiety is of the most important factors in any new experience for a child with autism. In a recent series of interviews, I asked adults with autism about anxiety and every single one of them reported feeling highly anxious more than once an hour, every single day.

New places, unclear expectations, and crowds were cited as high anxiety situations. Considering those factors, summer camp is exactly suited to produce anxiety (for these same reasons) for children of all ages. One of the best ways to help campers with autism succeed is to address their anxiety directly, by clarifying your expectations and illuminating the order of events. Parents can do this ahead of time, and camp staff can support these efforts while at camp.

Here are some ideas for supporting your child in a typical summer camp setting:

Get in touch with a camp. Call them up, and be up front about your situation. Tell them you are the parent of a child with autism, and you want to find out if he or she would be successful at camp. Explain that you think, with a little preparation, your child will have a great time at camp without being a burden to their staff.

Visit the camp. Bring your camera. Take pictures of the cabins, bathrooms, dining hall, and activity areas of interest to your child. Ask for a copy of the camp schedule for a typical day if they have one. If they don’t have one, ask for a detailed list of what usually happens during a typical day and write it down.

Prepare. Make a little kit for your child’s counsellor, including a schedule that works best for your child, with written instructions about how to manage
the schedule. Include a digital timer for transition warnings and some high interest items that can engage your child during down time or when he or she is bored with a certain activity. Write a letter to the counsellor explaining the items in the kit, and some of the behaviour your child might exhibit at camp.

Communicate. If possible, arrange to meet with the camp director and your child’s counsellor(s) during staff training week. Tell them you think it will help your child be successful at camp if you are able to speak with them, and give them a chance to ask questions. Tell them a little bit about your child’s likes and dislikes.

Prepare your camper. Campers who are the most successful at camp will a) understand that they will stay at camp overnight, for multiple nights; b) have slept somewhere besides their house before (e.g., at a hotel or friend or family member’s house; and c) know how to ask for help in a confusing situation.

Be a resource. Share the following information about how a camp can prepare for children who process information differently.

Summer camp can be a magical and diverse experience for all campers. It is in everyone’s best interest to include a wide variety of campers into our camp communities. Making adjustments for campers with autism is worth this work!

Autism, Anxiety and Visual Learning

The following factors make it difficult for people with autism to understand the expectations at camp:

• Anxiety: none of us are good listeners when we’re anxious

• Auditory processing is difficult: long verbal statements can be hard for campers to follow, while visual information is often processed more easily

• Difficulty interpreting tone of voice or facial expressions: campers with autism often overlook social nuance in voice tone or face. For example, if you use, the “I’m getting frustrated” tone, a camper with autism might completely miss the implied hint to knock it off.

The trifecta of being anxious, having verbal language challenges, and missing social cues makes it extremely likely that campers with autism will behave oddly at camp. Luckily, there are some easy and affordable ways to set these campers up for success.

• Have camps show campers what will happen during the day: Write down a detailed schedule for the week and post it in the cabin and in the dining hall; Make a small ‘pocket schedule’ for each day that a camper can bring with him or her.

• Have camps set clear and blunt behaviour expectations: Write the rules (short, positively phrased) and post them in a variety of settings; Refer to the rules (while pointing at them) when you arrive to the new setting; State expectations without asking. “In 2 minutes, it will be time to put your shoes on.” instead of, “Do you want to get ready to go?”

• Have camps communicate visually: Write down rules and schedules and camp-specific procedures. Post them in the setting where they apply; Demonstrate activities, games, and projects while you explain them; Allow campers to watch first, before they jump into an activity; Use notes and drawings to process incidents after the fact, instead of just talking.

• Have camps create flexible programming: Create alternate versions of games or projects when you are planning activities, so campers can access them at various levels; Train staff to carry backpacks of alternative activities (Frisbees, cards, etc.) so campers who do not like the main activity can be happy nearby; Minimize ‘unstructured time’ for campers with autism. If everyone else has free choice, write down several concrete options for your camper, and let him or her choose from that list instead.

Sylvia van Meerten runs a counseling practice in Ann Arbor, Mich. She has been a camp counsellor, director, executive director and board member, and currently runs a small camp for kids with autism, peers, and siblings. She is the author of Happiness Diversity Autism, and routinely delivers workshops about the autism spectrum, diversity, leadership, compassion, and happiness.

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