Ideal Summer Camps for Autistic Teens

In this article I explore ideal summer camps for your autistic teen.  While the thought of planning out your next summer may be way off your radar, the winter months are actually the best time to do some research.  You can discover what is available in your area as well as apply for early-bird special rates and even scholarships.

The Ideal Time to Explore Summer Camps for Autistic Teens is…WINTER!

Right now, the holiday decorations are out. People are buying last minute gifts before Christmas. Kids anticipate the jolly guy any day now.  Summer seems eons away.

But early winter is the best time to start planning for the summer months if you are toying around with the idea of a camp experience.  Even if the thought of sending your autistic child away from home for more than a day is scary, I urge you to still explore options.

Why now?

  • Summer camp registrations often open in the winter or early spring.  It’s usually a “first-come, first-served” process.  It’s best to sign-up before it fills up.
  • Many offer early-bird rates for signing up early.  For example, EasterSeals in Indiana offers $100 off if you register in the winter versus in the spring.
  • Some give scholarships. If you dependent on financial help to get your child to summer camp, it’s best to apply and know whether you got accepted before applying with a deposit.
  • If you are thinking of taking a family vacation as well, you’ll need to know dates of these summer camps.

Where to Begin Exploring Summer Camp Options

You can start with a simple Google search. But it may take a lot of time to find what you are looking for.

Explore your options through the American Camp Association.  Filter by the type of experience you are looking for and by location.  When you refine your search, be sure to scroll down to “Disability and Special Needs” and filter by “Autism” or any other criteria.

The “Very Special Camps” website lists many camps around the country. Filter your search by your state and program type to see what is available in your area for your child’s particular needs.

For those living in Indiana, the Indiana Resource for Autism has provided a terrific list of summer camp programs.  These include residential day programs as well as overnight camps.

Here are some other specific suggestions to explore for ideal summer camps for autistic teens:

Special Autism Camps

Some summer camp programs are only geared toward those with special needs, including serving those with autism in particular.

EasterSeals

Easterseals sponsors Camp Rocks in central Indiana.  Many states have Easterseals programs, so hopefully you can find something close by well-suited for your needs. They also have early-bird registration that will save you about $100 on the registration fee.

My daughter has participated in this camp for the last two summers.  It is a week-long and specially designed to provide a fun experience for autistic teens and respite for their parents.  She loves it, and I love it! She really enjoys performing impromptu skits with other campers.

Every staff at Camp Rocks is well-trained to handle behavioral situations related to autism.  Several are specifically wanting to work autistic youth in future careers, so you know they have a heart for serving your child.

Your Local Therapy Agency

Some agencies sponsor camps themselves. Some might be day camps while others are overnight experiences.  For example, my respite agency LEL provides offers special weekend getaways at a camp during the summer. Or, we can participate in their monthly meet-ups at a horseback riding stable or lake for swimming.  Ask if your therapeutic agency if it sponsors or knows of any summer camps ideal for your autistic teen.

Traditional Summer Camps

Hopefully there are some traditional programs that might be well-designed to accommodate the needs of your autistic teen.

Local City Parks and YMCA

Not all summer camps offer accessible programs for specifically for autistic teens.  But don’t also assume your local YMCA or city park will not have accommodations already in place. It may not be evident on their promotional material that they serve those with autism.

Call them up to see if they have staff trained for assist special needs. You may need to share exactly what kinds of accommodations your autistic teen needs (i.e. dietary, sensory, visual schedule, etc.). Then they can match you with the best program.  Check out this search feature through the YMCA to find a local resident day program or an overnight camp.

This article by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism may answer a few questions you have about if non-special needs organization can and should accommodate for autism.

Scouting Organizations

Scouts BSA offers a wide variety of fun summer camp activities.  If your son or daughter has joined a troop and you are unsure how he or she may handle a week-long summer camp away from home (and you) for the first time, check out my article Autism Preparations for Scout Summer Camp. I provide tips for preparing your scouter before the grand experience.

Definitely let the camp director know ahead of time what kinds of accommodations your teen or pre-teen will need while at camp.  She/He will have to alert particular staff (cook, nurse, merit badge counselors, etc.) about your child’s needs.  Here is another resource to share with your scout leader when you register for summer camp: “Preparing for Summer Camp

 

Ease Into the Camp Experience (if Necessary)

If the idea of leaving your autistic teen at a camp all week away from home gives you pause, then consider doing day-camps nearby.  Get him or her used to the idea of camp activities and interacting with others.

See about registering 1- or 2-nights for overnight camps that are within an hour from home. If something happens, you can easily pick up your child.

Scholarships

For any summer camp inquiry, always ask if there is a scholarship opportunity available.  It often is not apparent on their websites.  If they have deadlines, then they will most likely be in the winter or spring. That’s why it’s so important to start your research now.

Search NOW for Ideal Summer Camps for Autistic Teens

I urge you to take some time before spring hits to discover the perfect summer camp opportunity for your autistic teen.

Summer camp experiences last a lifetime. They are great for making memories and building relationships beyond the program. My daughter and I got together to hang out with one young girl she befriended and her mom a few times after the camp.

Summer camp gives teens confidence that they can manage their own lives without mom and dad around.   My son took his summer camp experience to a new level when he started working living there for 6 weeks (only coming home on weekends).

You never know the kinds of growth that can come with taking a leap into a new supportive environment with new faces.  I’m so glad we took a chance on our summer camp experiences!

 

Accessing Accommodations in Scouts BSA

Special Needs Accommodations in Scouts BSA

Serving Scouts with Disabilities

It wasn’t too long ago that those with disabilities were actively excluded from life of mainstream society.  If they didn’t automatically look, think, act or speak like everyone else, they were often shunned. If they were given similar opportunities, they were segregated away from others. Accommodations for special needs Scouts were rare.

Fortunately, thanks to some fiercely passionate parents and other advocates, things have changed.  Those who are physically, intellectually, and neurologically different are now encouraged to participate alongside everyone else in school, sports, band, and other social clubs.

Likewise, Boy Scouts of America encourages its units to welcome youth of all abilities into their troops.

But the journey to full inclusion and rank achievement is not always clear and easy for those with disabilities.

 

Feeling Included

In the past many troops did not feel they had the adequate resources to properly accommodate some potential members.

The issue today is not necessarily the lack of accommodations provided by BSA, but the lack of awareness that they exist, both by troop leadership and parents of special needs Scouts.

Another potential problem could be the lack of willingness of the troop leadership, its members and/or the Scouts parents to push for assistance despite knowing help exists.

It’s for all of these reasons, both past and present, that the Boy Scouts of America created the National Disability Awareness Committee for Special Needs Scouts. It’s mission is to to help all youth who joins its ranks for feel welcomed and included.

Yes, there are some troops that are specifically designed for special-needs Scouts only.  But the organization would argue that those scouts are best served in regular patrols. Everyone benefits by including those with differences.

I heartily agree. That is why my autistic daughter has joined a regular inaugural girls BSA troop.

 

All in the Family

My husband is a Boy Scout “lifer”.  He earned his Eagle Scout rank and received the Vigil Honor of Order of the Arrow. He worked at a few Scout camps and now serves as a troop Scoutmaster and Wood Badge staff.  To say he’s deeply committed to Scouts is an understatement.

 

 

My son also earned his Eagle Scout.  Like his sister he also has autism.  But he started right at age 11 and had a lot of support from leadership. We did not request any special needs accommodations as we felt he was progressing through the ranks well-enough.

My daughter entered Scouts at age 15.  She has greater difficulty understanding auditory information and memorizing the Scout Oath and Law. Due to these conditions, we are seeking accommodations that will enable her to progress at her own comfortable pace and in her learning style.

 

 

I became an Assistant Scoutmaster both to help her and other leaders best serve her. Because our entire family is so involved in Scouts, we are heavily networked to people who will help my daughter succeed.

Despite her challenges, we are committed to helping her forge her own path in Scout as far as she is willing to go. I believe firmly in the power of Scouting to build solid life skills and self-confidence, as we have witnessed with her brother.

(Read my article HERE on why I believe Scouts is the one of the best organizations for those on the spectrum.)

 

A Special Needs Parent’s Role in Scouts

I understand many parents won’t involve themselves at this level, and that’s okay.

But to ensure the success of a youth in Scouts, it’s vital that the parent be a vigilant advocate for his/her child’s entire Scouting lifetime.  

To help me better understand how Scouts BSA accommodates special needs families, not only for myself but other families, I reached out to Julie Hadley.  She is the Disabilities Awareness Committee Chair for our council (Hoosier Trails).

I consider Julie a special education expert not only in Scouts but personally and professionally as well.  She is mom of three, all of whom had a range of educational challenges.  She has also served as a special education teacher since 2007. As she put it, “I have been on both sides of the table for IEP meetings. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

I asked Julie a range of questions related to special needs accommodations in Scouting programs. I believe her answers will help any new Scout and Scouting parent start off on the right foot.

 

Scouts BSA Accommodations Q & A

1. How do parents go about asking for accommodations with their own scout troop?

Parents need to talk to the scoutmaster and troop leadership as soon as their child joins a troop or pack. The way things have been in recent history, parents are not asking for accommodations until almost time for the youth to age-out. Parents are talking to the scoutmaster a month or a few weeks before the youth turns 18, when they see that he is not going to make Eagle (Scout).

 

2. What kinds of accommodations can they ask for?

This absolutely depends on the needs of the scout. What accommodations do they receive at school?  No two scouts are the same, so accommodations are absolutely individualized. My guidance is that parents talk to the scoutmaster and discuss what accommodations the school is using.*

*Side note: Later on, the parents and scout leaders will work on formulating the right accommodations using the Individual Scout Advancement Plan ( BSA-ISP-form.pdf (126 downloads) ).  Bring along your child’s IEP to help figure out the right accommodations with troop leadership.

 

3. How can scouts with disabilities get an extension on the age-requirement to achieve the Eagle Scout rank?

There is a common confusion: an “extension” is not what special needs scouts need.

Special needs Scouts need to complete the form REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY. That registration stays with the council and we approve it as a committee.

Extensions are specific for only extra time and are approved by National. They are difficult to get and the youth has to have some life changing event that they have had no control over. National does not approve many of these.

 

4. How might a special needs parent role be different from a non-special needs parent role in a scout troop?

Special needs parents know all too well that their child is going to need extra support. Like every parent, we volunteer to support what our children get involved with.

Possible roles for special needs parents include: educating troop leaders on what their child needs and educating other youth on those special needs. I have seen parents jump in with both feet and become part of troop leadership.

 

5. What should the leadership of a troop do to ensure full inclusion of the special needs child into a regular troop?

Start with open honest conversations with the parents, asking some of the tough questions. Learn about the disability, and learn what the youth needs or doesn’t need. Troop leadership needs to know what parent expectations are. Troop leadership needs to ask the youth what they want to accomplish in scouts.

 

6. Is training providing for troop leadership to better understand the special needs of their scouts? Who does that training and how do they go about asking for it?

University of Scouting offers special needs training.  University of Scouting happens at various times of the year in our neighboring councils. Classes are taught by volunteers with a lot of experience in that area.

 Training Expo in our council hold special needs classes that are taught every year on various topics. Training Expo occurs every February and class topics are suggested by individuals who volunteer to teach the class.

Troop Leadership and parents are free to contact me and I will help with educating leadership or directing them to someone in their area that have a lot of experience.

Training is always a hot topic when everyone is a volunteer.

 

7. What should be considered when joining a special needs troop (if available)? Is there a link to find them in someone’s local area?

When joining a special needs troop or forming a special needs troop, figure out the primary goal for your child. What experiences do you want for your child?

The best way to find out if we have special needs troops is to call council.

 

8. What are the ways the family of a special needs child can advocate for him/her beyond the troop level?

That’s an interesting question that I’ve never been asked. The best answer I have is to contact our committee and work with the committee.*

*Side note: Those on a Council Disability Committee can serve as an intermediary between the special needs scout and his/her family and troop leadership if a problem arises.  The committee member can assess the situation from all sides including the Scout’s, helping everyone come to a resolution. Sometimes that resolution can be positive if a plan-of-action is put into place long before he/she ages out. But if the Request for Registration Beyond the Age of Eligibility form was not completed, the process can be much harder.

Sometimes if troop leadership is not willing or able to accommodate the requests of the special needs Scout, often he or she moves on to another troop and/or is not able to achieve the highest rank desired.

 

9. Is there a troop assessment instrument to measure how inclusive a troop is of a special needs scout?

There is, not to my knowledge, an assessment like this. This would be interesting and something that would have to be re-evaluated with every change in leadership. For some troops that happens every couple of years…and some troops it is MANY years between changes.

 

10. Where can special needs families go to get more resources to help meet their needs?

There are several special needs and scouts webpages. National (Scouts BSA) has resources listed. There are special needs trainings with the national committee at Philmont (New Mexico) every summer.

 

How to Access this Important Accommodation

The most important lesson is that it’s best to file the REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY form as soon as a special-needs Scout joins a troop.  For my daughter, I plan to do this very soon.

To get the process started, be sure to follow these steps:

1. Contact your council’s disability committee to start the paperwork: registration-beyond-the-age-of-eligibility-1.pdf (92 downloads)

2. Schedule a meeting with parents, Scoutmaster, committee member and Scout.

3. Parents and Scoutmaster(s) work together to complete the paperwork.

4. Submit the paperwork to the committee member.

5. Decision will be made by the committee to accept the form.

 

Rely on the expertise and guidance of those in the Disability Committee of your council throughout the years your child will be in Scouts.  They represent the best of Scouting because they are committed to making sure your special needs Scout has the opportunity to grow and achieve great things among those who care.

 

For more information, visit the Disabilities Awareness page on the Scouts BSA website.

For disability assistance with the Hoosier Trails Council, visit their Facebook page “Hoosier Trails-Disability Awareness”.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

NOTE: Our summer camp experience has been with Boy Scouts of America.  Many of these tips could also apply to autistic youth in other scouting groups, such as Girl Scouts, American Heritage Girls or Trail Life USA.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

Those with autism often need special assistance to get ready for a week of Scout camp.  In this article you will learn about the important autism preparations for Scout camp.

 

I did my best to help my autistic daughter prepare for her first scout camp experience. We used the BSA Scouts packing list.  We asked questions about the camp.  We relied on my Scoutmaster husband for advice.

 

It was only a few months since our inaugural troop for girls was founded in the newly structured Scouts BSA (formerly known as Boy Scouts).  So, we didn’t have much preparation for attending camp besides learning some basic first aid skills and discussing what we should pack.

 

Luckily, we have two Scout leaders who have prepared their own sons for Scout camp for many years.  It was a blessing that they knew their way around camp, the daily schedule, and merit badge requirements.

 

My autistic son did very well at camp as a Scout and now works there in the kitchen. I was reassured that my autistic daughter would be fine.  Since she has different challenges, I thought it best to take extra measures to help her and the staff know the accommodations she needs.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

The first thing a Scout learns is the motto: “Be Prepared”.  That’s exactly the mentality required for a week at summer camp.

 

Here are important autism preparations for Scout camp:

 

Before Camp

 

Choose activities your youth is familiar and/or has a very keen interest in doing (STEM, Scoutcraft, aquatics, shooting sports, etc.). When engaged in an activity for which he or she has a passion or skill, this will alleviate some concerns about being in a new and strange environment.  My daughter is very familiar with archery and chose to do that with the other girls in the troop.  She ended up with the highest score in the class, of which she is extremely proud.  She will now associate summer camp as a fun and positive experience and want to go again next year.

 

Consider staying at least one night (preferably the first) with your child. This is especially important for the first year of attending summer camp. I was able to figure out with what exactly my daughter needed help and to guide her to different activity locations.  If your child has never been away from home for an overnight, then I encourage you to stay during the week. If you can’t sleep overnight, ask about Day passes so you can check in a time or two during the week.

 

Prepare an “Accommodations Card”.  I created a short list of accommodations for my daughter so camp staff could communicate with her and meet her needs appropriately. I laminated the printed cards and handed them out to each person with whom she had regular contact.  They were grateful to know to best help when she was frustrated.

Here is a template I made—you can alter it to fit your child’s needs:  Scout-Camp-Accommodations-TEMPLATE.pdf (99 downloads)

 

Let troop leaders know how your child handles frustration. Help them know the difference between an anxiety attack, a meltdown and willful disobedience.  Create a “meltdown plan” (for safety reasons for self and others) for troop leaders—write it down on a card and laminate.   If you will not be with your child at camp, establish a communication plan. For example, many camps have very limited WiFi service. Ask troop leaders when and by what method is best to communicate if there is an issue at camp.

 

Create a picture schedule and/or social story of the camp routines. Get the camp map and your child’s scheduled activities the week before.  Go over this routine a few times with your child before leaving for camp.

 

Complete the merit badge worksheets for the activities your child will actually do at camp.  It will be helpful to do these at least a week or two before camp. That way he/she can recall the information that is heard in the class itself and be able to answer some of the questions. If a class is heavy lecture (like First Aid), bring along a tape recorder; have a notepad to take notes (ask a peer to take notes is he/she can’t); or perhaps follow along in the Scout book.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout CampGet ready for the swim test!  For any aquatic activity, every scout needs to perform a swim test.  Even if he/she has achieved “Blue Swimmer” status already, the camp requires each camper and adult leader to demonstrate proficiency—every year!  This is where your child may have issues.  I strongly urge you to practice the stroke and lap requirements in a lake before camp.  (If going to a lake is out of the question, practice in a pool.) If your child is too overwhelmed with swimming in a lake and refuses to perform the swim test, then she/he cannot do any of the aquatic merit badges (kayaking, canoeing, etc.).  If that’s the case, another merit badge or open activity can be chosen. Create a social story about what it’s like and what to do for the swim-test.

 

Make sure the shoes and boots your child wears are very comfortable.  Wear them in before going (especially try to hike in them over rough terrain for at least an hour).  Have back-up shoes that are waterproof.  Water-shoes are fine to walk around in, but if it’s raining all day, your feet will stay pruny ALL DAY.  Not good.

 

Did I mention there is LOTS of walking at camp?  I mean, miles per day!  And with a semi-heavy day bag on your child’s back all day.  If you can prepare with a few hiking excursions or walking exercise, the better off.  Bring electrolyte drinks and water to prevent leg cramps and dehydration.

 

Make the camp aware of any medical, dietary or sensory issues on the application. When you get there, alert the kitchen staff to food intolerances. Reserve an appointment with a physician as soon as your child is registered for camp.  Be sure to pack the necessary medications and sensory items.  If your child needs medicine for anxiety, ask if the troop leader can keep and administer those meds right in camp instead of at the nurse’s station. If you keep food at the camp, be sure to seal it up tight!  The mice had a feeding frenzy on our snack food while we slept.

 

Don’t forget a sensory kit!  If your child has ANY sensitivity to noise, bring those noise-cancelling headphones!  The loudest setting was the dining hall.  These staffers love to pump up the volume with their songs and skits and table-thumping. It gets everyone enthused but the noise—even for me—was almost unbearable.  Bring any other sensory-calming item if necessary (like a weighted blanket for nighttime sleeping).

 

 

During Camp

 

Have a designated peer helper (“buddy”) who is kind and conscientious. If they are in the same merit badge classes together, have them walk to and from those class together.  They can even share a tent and help your child get a day-bag ready. Ask one of the scout leaders to assist in getting your child to a class if no one else in their troop goes.

 

 

Walk through the camp areas on the day of arrival with all scouts. Follow the route the week’s schedule, starting with the first activity, then the second, etc.  Have your child follow along with the picture schedule and map you made beforehand.

 

Help your child prepare a day-bag.  Create a picture schedule of all items that should go into it. Your child should have a small first aid kit, notetaking pads and pencil, swim gear, sunscreen, bug spray, a flashlight, and possibly merit badge worksheets to work on while at camp. Ask your scoutmaster or assistant to help check the day-bag every day to make sure all necessary items are included.

 

Show the Accommodations cards to every activity counselor.  Explain to them how your child may react to unfamiliar requests, events or settings (no prior approval needed). Have a troop leader do this if you cannot.

 

Some challenges we encountered

 

With the rain and thunder they moved the kayaking class to the indoor dining hall. My daughter did fine with the transition.

 

When the sun came out, our leader suggested doing the swim tests at the lake. My daughter has been lake swimming before but freaked her out because she wasn’t expecting a test.  It took her 30 minutes to put her suit on and come down to the beach. She needed time to transition and accept this inevitability.  After much persuasion she managed to get in the water and achieve “blue swimmer” in order to complete her kayaking merit badge.

 

Hence, this is the reason I stress practicing the swim test in a lake or making a social story before coming to camp!

 

Another problem was her boots.  While she never complained about them at home, she never had to walk in them for several miles, either!  By the end of the first day, I was trading boots with her because she had blisters forming.

 

I highly recommend doing some preliminary hiking or walking in camp boots or waterproof shoes at home before wearing them at camp.  Or bring along enough extra shoes that are comfortable.

 

 

Some positive highlights

 

My daughter loved the Pioneer Rendezvous.  It was an after-dinner event with Native American flute playing (which my daughter got to try), kettle corn and root beer, leather-making and iron-branding, rifle demonstrations, atlatl throwing and just enjoying the company of others.

 

Take advantage of the optional fun activities in the evening. This will make the homesickness less and the willingness to stick it out at camp stronger.

 

I am very pleased that this camp goes above-and-beyond to make an unforgettable experience.  Honestly, I wished—momentarily—that I was young again.  I suppose I’ll settle for being an Assistant Scoutmaster…

 

The staffers were not only extremely accommodating but inclusive of my daughter.  They welcome all kids with open-arms and are excited to have them be in Scouts…which is why I believe Scouts is so fantastic for youth on the spectrum.

 

Keep in mind that those with autism need special preparation for the Scout camp experience.  With the right mindset and preparation, a Scout camp experience will not only be loads of fun but will help your autistic youth grow in self-confidence and self-reliance.

 

Retreats at Hocking Hills

Retreats at Hocking Hills State Park

Cabin retreats at Hocking Hills

Blissful Getaways: Retreats at Hocking Hills

 

There is nothing like being completely surrounded by a canopy of trees…and little else.  Our hideaway cabin in the woods was the perfect getaway to visit such an ethereal place.  From cabins to campsites, you’ll find a wide range of retreats at Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio.

 

During the Memorial Day weekend holiday, we met up with my own family here.  The house we rented was large enough to accommodate all eleven of us comfortably.  With 3 floors we never felt that we were “invading” each other’s space. It was located only 10 minutes away from any of the trails of the park.

 

Hocking Hills has no shortage of cabins to rent for a weekend retreat or a longer vacation. They also have several campgrounds and hotels if you are looking for a cheaper alternative.

 

Not all lodging at Hocking Hills is equal.

 

Autism families may need to conduct some research into the different kinds of accommodations best suited for their needs.  Besides web-searches, you may need to make a few phone calls to make they have everything you need.

 

Cabin Rentals

 

My sister did some web- surfing for cabins until she found something she knew we would both like.  I ended up calling the owner one of the rental cabins. I was sold by his friendly phone demeanor and enthusiasm for what the house and property had to offer.

 

Welcome to the Sieri Glen                     Backyard campfire at the cabin

 

Corban Cabin GetawaysThe Sieri Glen is a log cabin that, while rustic-looking, was not lacking in the finer amenities.  My daughter honed her skills on the pool table while my son appreciated the outdoor hot tub.  It has 4-bedrooms and 3 futons, DirectTV, board games, a full washer-and-dryer set, 2 indoor fireplaces and an outdoor fire-ring.  My favorite moments were sitting in a rocking chair on the back-porch listening to refreshing sound of the rain on the trees.

 

Relax on the backporch                          Plenty of recreation options

 

Corban Cabin was perfect to help our family who live far apart to reconnect.  After a few hours of hiking it was nice to just cook for ourselves and relax in a comfortable house to talk, laugh and play games.

 

The cabin was not cheap, however. At least three families paying equally makes it comparable to a one-night stay in a nice hotel.  Another downside is that the cabin is not wheelchair-accessible. There are stairs throughout the house and up to the front porch.  The steep, gravel driveway may become inaccessible during the winter months.

 

My sister has previously stayed in the Chalet A-frame cabins which are suitable for small families and look to be more handicapped accessible.  They also have their own pool for guests and accept pets.

 

Chalet cabins at Hocking Hills                Swim in the sun at the Chalets

 

Campgrounds

 

There are several private campgrounds in the Hocking Hills area.  Many are extremely affordable.  Hocking Hills Adventure Camping has primitive riverside sites for as little as $26 a night.

 

We drove through the state park campground right next to Old Man’s Cave entrance.  The campground was very full, although some of the unreserved spots were still available on a Saturday afternoon. I found the sites to be narrow and short—cars and trucks had to be parked next to the campers. There was partial shade but mostly sun for most sites.   Their full hookup sites had electric, water and sewage.

 

Campsite at Hocking Hills State Park campground              Camping at Hocking Hills

 

Hotels & Bed & Breakfasts

 

If you’d rather stay in a hotel, there are some available in the vicinity. But they may not be very close to Hocking Hills State Park. Any hotel located in Logan, Ohio (including Holiday Inn Express) would be closer to the trails.

 

If you want lodging with a medieval flair, check out Ravenwood Castle.   They serve as a wedding venue as well as a site for gaming conventions and other events.  Besides suites they also have cottages that are reasonably priced.

 

Ultimate Nature Retreat

 

With the right planning and “pre-exploration” of the lodging available at Hocking Hills, you can ensure a relaxing getaway for your autism family. It’s the perfect place to unwind, unplug and reconnect with family and friends.

Bonding with family at a Hocking Hills cabin

 

Whether you are looking for a primitive camping experience or lodging that makes you feel like royalty, you can find a wide variety of lodging accommodations close to the park. Explore the vast range of retreats at Hocking Hills state park by visiting their tourism website.

 

I get a feeling we’ll be back within the year.  It’s allure not only as a nature preserve but as a retreat from everyday life makes Hocking Hills one-of-a-kind park.

For more getaway ideas like this, just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

 

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Basking in cascading sunlight at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills: Unplug…unwind…breathe deep!

 

Tired of living in our stressful modern world?  You can find the perfect atmosphere for nature therapy at Hocking Hills State Park.

 

We live in fast-paced movements; loud artificial noises; concrete scenery; electronic addictions; and compartmentalized living.  No wonder people want to escape it!

 

These sensory-intense, disconnected environments are often “toxic” for autistic individuals, aggravating their sensitive neurological systems.

 

But being in nature, even for a few minutes, can have instant benefits. Studies have found that being in nature decreases cortisol (the stress hormone). Those that make longer commitments to be in nature, often on guided group adventures, have found lasting healing from chronic pain, such as PTSD.

 

Breathing in the forest air immediately brings peace to mind, body and soul.  It is calming and rejuvenating at the same time…which can help both sensory-seekers and sensory-avoiders.

 

Nature therapy through forest breathing

 

Being in the forests of Hocking Hills in Ohio fulfilled my need to escape daily living for a while and feel refreshed.  I felt centered, grounded, at-peace and brimming with joy among the trees.  My autistic kids absolutely loved spending time there with other family around.

 

Besides physical health, being in nature can also help improve sensory-integration, spatial/body-awareness, and executive functioning.

 

Nature therapy at Hocking Hills is ideal for autistic individuals and their families needing a calming atmosphere.

 

“Forest therapy”

 

The Japanese call it “forest bathing”.  It is the act of being attuned to the smallest of sounds and the scents of the trees. It is not fast-paced hiking. Rather, it is slow strolls or sitting quietly in nature. It is feeling the “life” of the forest.

 

Reading about others’ experiences with “forest bathing” gave me the sense that they were getting in touch with the “kid inside”.  You know, the one who took mud baths, ran barefoot in the grass, and spent most of the day outside with friends.

 

WHAT TO DO:

  • It’s very simple…take your time to walk along the paths. Reflect upon the beautiful scenery and try to think of nothing else for the moment. Let your child take his/her time to explore along the path.

 

  • As you walk or hike at a faster pace, inhale slowly and deeply. Show your child how it’s done.  Take breaks to just sit and relax.

Just being in nature has been proven to provide many benefits for kids:

  • Leads to increased collaboration, imagination, concentration and positive feelings.
  • Fuels higher levels of Vitamin D from natural sunlight, providing an immunity barrier against illnesses and protect against weight gain.
  • Teaches kids how to assess risk better than being in a “safe playground” space.

 

The power of nature as a healer for physical and social health is amazing.  But it also contributes to sensory wellness, perfect for those with autism.  (Don’t believe me?   Read this article.)

 

Sensory Integration Therapy

 

Autistic children can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to the environmental input around them.  They react in different ways to make sense of it all. Determine your autistic child’s key sensory issues and use nature as a “therapy tool” to work on them.

 

Body awareness:  Some with autism have vestibular (balance) issues.  Others have a hard time knowing where their body is in space relative to other objects or people (called proprioception).  Some of the best things to do to improve this condition—besides working with a PT or OT in an indoor, highly-structured setting—is to practice in natural settings.

 

Take care of more treacherous paths

WHAT TO DO:

  • Those with more severe issues can stay on shorter trails that are relatively flat and/or paved in the gorges. Gradually move to more rugged paths and those with no safety rails when you feel confident your child can handle those.

 

  • With gentle guidance on the nature trails, you can challenge your child by slowly and carefully walking over tree roots, climbing over rocks, and wading in a stream.

 

  • “Show and tell” how you walk down muddy steps, then let you child follow one step at a time.

 

  • Consider buying a stable, well-built hiking stick or two (one for each hand). Even experienced hikers use these for stability and support. These are a great therapy tool to practice coordination.

 

The 5 Senses:  Nature, especially in larger state or national parks, provide a more serene atmosphere with much less sensory output.  No extreme visual, auditory, or motion-based triggers here bombarding your autistic child.  Your child can focus on receiving and processing input one aspect of nature at a time.

 

WHAT TO DO:

  • Hiking in nature can be part of your child’s sensory diet. For example, if you child needs help with auditory input, help him or her pick out the different sounds with active listening.  Or, let him or her touch plants, rocks, leaves, running water, etc. (anything non-poisonous, of course).

 

  • Shut out one sense to heighten the experience of another. For example, have your child close his/her eyes to feel a natural object or to hear birds. Or, apply sound-barring headphones to focus on the visual elements to play an “I-spy” game.

 

Executive-Functioning Therapy

 

Many autistic kids remember a million tiny details but cannot remember 2-step directions. Organizing information in their brain is hard.  Add all of life’s daily distractions and environmental sensory triggers and it becomes impossible to focus.  But a calm environment with “no rules” can be a good place to practice those executive-functioning skills.

 

Appreciating the natural beauty of Hocking HillsWHAT TO DO:

  • Practice following 2- or more-step directions with simple task along the path. For example: “first, find a rock that is round and then throw it in the creek.” Or “find two sticks and put the smaller one behind a big rock”.

 

  • To help with understanding sequences, take photos of places along the path. Have your child take some of his/her favorite spots as well. When you get back from your trip you can create your own social story of your memories in order you did them. (Note day and time of your photos and add them into your story.)

 

  • Have your child help pack the hiking bag with needed supplies. Ask what they think is necessary for the amount of time you’ll be gone of the trail. This helps with learn the process of planning.

 

Reconnecting with Nature

 

Tackling important sensory and life skills doesn’t have to happen in a lab-like, institutional clinic.  Some of the best progress happens in more natural settings having fun with one’s own family.  The truest breakthroughs for those with autism happen in joyful connection and relationship with others.

 

Simple fun at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is the perfect respite for autistic individuals to connect with self and to forge greater bonds with their families.

 

See for yourself why people come back to Hocking Hills in Ohio again and again…any time of the year!

 

Now, let’s move on to the lodging accommodations available at Hocking Hills!

 

Besides Hocking Hill, go out and discover “nature therapy” in any city, state or national park wherever you find an abundance of trees.

Safety Tips for Hocking Hills

Safety Tips for Hocking Hills

NOTE:  These are safety tips for Hocking Hills. They may apply to any state or national park that has a similar terrain and accessibility. 

 

Old Man Cave of Hocking Hills

 

Otherworldly.  Awe-inspiring.  Therapeutic.

 

Words like these cannot even begin to describe the scene that awaited our initial discovery of Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio.  Given the rocky terrain of the park, however, some parents might be worried their autistic child may not be able to handle the paths. I hope to reassure you by providing safety tips for exploring Hocking Hills and other parks like it.

 

Located southeast of Columbus, Ohio, this mind-blowing, beautiful place has attracted visitors from all over.  Southern Ohio is a lot like southern Indiana and Kentucky…gentle-rolling hills with caves and deep ravines carved out by waterfalls.

 

But Hocking Hills is totally unique.  Because its gorges are so deep, it hosts plant and animal species only seen in Canada or the Pacific Northwest.  Giant hemlock trees dominate the landscape while Canadian warblers make their home here. On the upper rims you’ll find typical Midwest oak and hickory trees.

 

Stair rails for safe guiding

We felt transported to particular movie settings. To me, we stepped into the “Star Wars” forest moon of Endor where the Ewoks lived. My son said it looked like Pandora from “Avatar”, since the giant rock outcroppings appeared to be “floating”. My daughter simply said it was “nature’s Disney World”.Otherwordly rock outcroppings at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is a sensory treat:  stunning scenery; soothing sounds; and a plethora of tactile experiences.

 

That said, there are some very critical safety challenges while exploring Hocking Hills.

 

Autism families need to take special care to prepare themselves and their children for hiking the breathtaking, but rugged, terrain.

 

Amazing forest beauty at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is a hiking park with many trails.  You will need to be able to walk, climb stairs and maneuver over rocks and tree limbs.  You will also need to have a fairly good sense of personal safety.

 

Here are safety tips for Hocking Hills to help you navigate and overcome these challenges:

 

1. Very Limited or NO WiFi

The benefit is that you get to completely unplug from the outside world. You are truly escaping from reality. The problem is that you cannot communicate with one another if you split up, contact people back home, or (in the event of an accident on a trail) call up an ambulance if you don’t have good cell phone coverage. I called park staff about this issue: Sprint has some spotty coverage and sometimes you can get signal at the town or tops of ridges. I have AT&T and had no coverage anywhere.  Park rangers are around but we didn’t see any during our visit.

TIPS:

  • I suggest that the entire party stays together while hiking the trails. Have a designated “runner” to get back to the car quickly in order to get help.

 

  • Determine a “meeting place and time” if your party gets split up; wear watches so everyone is in sync.

 

  • Bring a few park maps in case you get lost. Don’t leave your phone in the car—bring it along as it has a GPS function to help locate your position even without wifi.

 

2. Weather Forecast

If you can, find out the weather for the day. (See if your lodging accommodation has its own WiFi or DirectTV access.)  Hill top during a thunderstormA hot sunny day will not be a burden if you hike in the deep gorges. Temperatures drop at least 10-15 degrees here and shade is abundant.  Weather is very unpredictable in the summer months.

We got caught in a thunderstorm on top of the ridge.  Standing in puddles of water in a high location was not good idea, so we walked back. Our trail turned into a raging stream, so we had to be extremely cautious where we stepped. People below on the gorge trail witnessed massive trees and rocks falling after being uprooted by the heavy downpours. Water always falls to its lowest point, so the water can rise extremely fast along the lower trails.  (See the “before and after” photos of Conkle’s Hollow below.)

 

Before the rain…

Dry path before the rains

 

After the rain…

After the heavy rains

 

TIPS:Bad weather moving in

  • Download the AccuWeather app. Access the latest forecast online with a good signal. Then, when you don’t have wifi, you can still see the weather offline (for up to 15 without signal).

 

  • If you hike in the rain, be sure to be on the lookout for rising waters. If there is a chance of storms or you hear distant rumbles of thunder, I strongly urge that you do NOT hike the trails!

 

3. Equipment Essentials

Some trails are long and have treacherous terrain. The right shoes are critical. Depending on how you want to spend your time on the trails, you’ll need to pack for a variety of needs: hunger, thirst, first aid, and capturing those moments for your memories. We put the first aid kit to good use after my nephew (with SPD and ADHD) scraped his knee up climbing the rock stairs.

TIPS:

  • Wear shoes that have thick tread and won’t fall off. Do NOT wear flip-flops or Crocs without an ankle strap! Some gym-shoes are not appropriate as they can be slick on muddy, wet stone-stairs. I felt very safe wearing water shoes—never slipped at all.

 

  • Bring a lightweight backpack big enough to carry what you need. Include snacks and plenty of water.

 

  • Bring small sensory items your child may need in case the hike is overwhelming.

 

  • Bring a good poncho and maybe a wide-brimmed rain hat on overcast days and if you anticipate the possibility of rain.

 

  • And most importantly, don’t forget a small first aid kit with alcohol wipes, band-aids, gauze and bandage tape.

 

4. Pet friendly trails

Many people brought their dogs with them, little or large.  They were all on leashes. Most seemed incredibly friendly.  Still, it’s best to prepare for encountering a stranger’s pet.  The only trail that does not allow dogs is Conkle’s Hollow.

TIPS:

  • Know how your autistic child reacts around dogs. Is he or she incredibly scared or intensely fascinated with other people’s dogs? Create a social story that teach him/her the appropriate behavior about being around strange dogs, if necessary.

 

5. Accessibility & Body-Spatial Awareness

If I haven’t drilled in the idea enough, I’ll say it again: Hocking Hills has rough terrain.  There are only two trails that are flat and paved: Ash Cave and Conkle’s Hollow Gorge Trail.  They provide terrific access for wheelchair users to view the scenery in the gorges. BUT…they only go so far.  A large boulder is blocking a good portion of the view of the waterfall at Ash Cave, and it’s impossible to see the end of the trail at Conkle’s Hollow as the paved trail turns rugged. Many areas of the trails have no rails to protect you from falling off a steep cliff.  If you are taking a younger child or one who has bodily coordination issues, be extra careful in taking them through these trails.

 

Beware of time-worn stone steps

 

TIPS:

  • Download the Trails Maps before you go! Study them and decide which ones are best for your family. For each trail they indicate the number of stair-steps, how many miles, and how dangerous. You can also pick up a trail map at the Welcome Center.

 

  • If your child has never been hiking in natural parks before, has not developed a sense of personal safety, or has poorer balance or coordination, start with some of the paved lower gorge trails previously mentioned.  The short distance to the falls on rugged terrain would be good practice for learning how to navigate over rougher paths.

 

  • If your child is very coordinated on unpredictable pathways, obeys safety commands, and understands what to do around dangerous areas, then feel free to hike the rim or overlook trails where you can enjoy gorgeous, birds-eye views of the park. Old Man’s Cave trail is a terrific hiking experience with incredible natural and man-made structures.

 

Handicapped accessible path

 

If you live in the Midwest but can’t get out to visit the Northwest Cascades any time soon, then come explore Hocking Hills.  Consider staying at least three days to fully explore what it has to offer.

 

Simple pleasures to be found at Hocking Hills       Awe-struck wonders of Hocking Hills

Safely guiding on the path

Before you arrive…

 

I recommend you visit the Ohio DNR site for Hocking Hills. Here you will find photos of some of the park sites.  Explore YouTube for videos of the trails. All Ohio State Parks are free to visitors, by the way…

 

For a more complete vacation planning resource (including lodging and other activities besides hiking), visit the official Hocking Hills tourism website.

 

When you arrive….

 

To begin your hiking adventures, be sure to stop by the Welcome Center first. Speak with a park ranger or staff more familiar with the park trails for specific guidance and recommendations.

 

Hopefully I have addressed the most critical safety considerations for which autistic individuals and families prepare.

 

       Trail waterfall       Dark path ahead       Architectural wonders

 

To be continued…

 

Now, let’s move on to the therapeutic benefits to be discovered at Hocking Hills!  Click the link to access the article: An Autism Guide to Exploring Hocking Hills State Park (Part 2): “Nature Therapy”

 

 

 

 

 

Camping with Autism

An Autism Guide to Camping

The camping experience can be fun for even those with autism.

Camping with Autism: Tips for a Positive Experience

To ensure that things go smoothly on a vacation in the great outdoors for those with spectrum challenges, here is an autism guide to camping.

You will find important sensory considerations as well as advice on campsites and equipment that will help you make the best decisions when planning your trips.

 

Passing on a love of camping…with some “growing pains”

I loved camping as a small child.  My first family vacations were at state parks and lakes in a pop-up camper. We hiked, cooked over a campfire, and went swimming, canoeing and fishing.

I have a deep nostalgia for what camping means: family bonding, respite from home activities, and a chance to rejuvenate in the relaxing outdoors.

Wanting to pass that love onto my own children, we decided to begin with tent camping.  We chose a park about 30 minutes away. Our site was right on the edge small lake, so we could fish right off the bank.

Things went fairly well that first night…until about 5 a.m. the next morning. My daughter woke up screaming at the top of her lungs and could not be consoled.  This caused my son to panic as well.  We decided to just pack up and leave right at sunrise, fearing the wrath of our campground neighbors (hopefully) still asleep.

Extremely disappointed, we sort of…gave up for a while.

If only we were simply more realistic about camping to begin with we could have given it another go while they were young.

Now that my teenagers have successfully experienced tent-camping with the Scouts, we decided to invest in a pop-up camper.  We love it! We cook over a fire and read books in hammocks; when it rains we play games inside the camper.

Hopefully our own camping experiences over the years will serve as a guide to help you decide how you should approach camping having autism in your own family.

 

Practical Advice for a Positive Camping Experience

Ahh...the smell of campfire cooking!1. Consider the “5-senses” of camping.

The smell of a campfire. The sight of a fire lighting up the night. Unless you are camping by yourselves in the middle of nowhere, then be prepared to encounter lots of other campers, too.

The level of these sensory experiences depends on the location of the campground and your individual campsite as well as the people around you.

Assess how your child’s sensory needs can be accommodated on a camp-out considering the five senses:

  • Sounds: range from quietly muted to loud, such as nearby site conversations; kids yelling to one another on their bikes; loud diesel trucks going by; sounds of birds and other animals; dogs barking; etc.

 

  • Sights: range from minimal stimulation to moderately high, such as a private tree lined site to wide open spaces with lots of games and other social activity between people of different campsites. Some campgrounds form little communities of people of who come back year-after-year.

 

  • Tactile: Some camping pads are gravel rocks with some dirt or grass while others are a smooth concrete pad. Handling wood or sitting on a rough picnic table may irritate some. If your autistic child likes deep pressure, then swing hammocks are a perfect way to relax.

 

  • Smell: most smells are muted, but others can be strong like smoky campfires and fuels from cars driving by while others are very pungent (think “outhouse”).

 

  • Taste: if your child is sensitive to different waters, then bring your own water. Most full-hookup sites have water available, but you may want to use it only for external purposes (i.e. washing).

 

2. Choose the right location.

So much of your experience depends on the location of the campground and your site within it. Find out the level of accessibility for personal needs, safety, and recreational amenities.

Some campgrounds have websites or videos of their sites to show what it’s like. Or, call the campground for more info. (Poor Farmer’s RV campground in Ohio is one that serves both short- and long-term campers.)

Ask yourself these questions:Choose your camping location with care.

  • Is the campground and/or some sites completely in a wooded area or in full sun? This can be a critical element if someone in the family is sensitive to sun and heat.

 

  • Does it have natural privacy barriers and plenty of space between sites, or is there very little privacy?

 

  • What is the terrain like? Rough, steep, or flat?

 

  • Does it have access to water and electricity or will you be totally roughing it?

 

  • Does the campground and site fully accommodate someone who needs a wheelchair or other medical equipment?

 

  • Is there WiFi available in case of emergency (or can you easily reach someone at the campground office)? Many state and national parks have limited or no internet access while private campgrounds may have WiFi available for guests.

 

  • Is your site accessible to other activities and restaurants or is it pretty remote?

 

  • Are pets allowed? What rules are in place if dogs are allowed?

 

  • If your child is a runner, would you be able to get help right away?

 

  • Is the location near water if your child is not yet a swimmer?

 

  • Would you feel comfortable giving your child some room to explore the campground on his or her own?

 

3. Assess your accommodation needs.

Your camp experience can range from living like a pioneer in a makeshift tent to “glamping” like a rock star in a mini-apartment on wheels.  Consider your family’s needs and previous experience staying in places away from home.

Could they actually “rough it” or would they need a more familiar setting like your own home?  Here are some pros and cons of each type of camping accommodation:RVs have many comforts of home suitable for most autism families.

TENTS…

  • Pros—cheap; relatively easy to set up; can be brought on a plane; set up anywhere; ideal for getting into remote places with fewer people.

 

  • Cons—may not be fully weather proof (rain, wind, cold, heat); little room to move, sit, stand; may not sleep comfortably; tight quarters for a large family or older kids; may need to bring a lot of loose items to camp.

 

POP-UP CAMPERS…

  • Pros—compact and lighter to tow (most cars); cheaper than most campers; queen or king-size beds; can sleep a whole family; often includes sink, stove and possibly a shower/toilet area.

 

  • Cons—smaller space than a travel trailer; takes at some time and effort to set up; canvas can tear and have holes; may not have access to some campgrounds (especially those out West if bears are a concern); not suitable to keep pets inside if you leave; may not have a toilet.

 

TRAVEL TRAILERS…

  • Pros—not much to set up; can store items inside; fits most campsites (depending on size); can take your vehicle to go places; full bathrooms and decent size kitchen areas; great for longer vacations (week or more).

 

  • Cons—need a larger truck or SUV to pull; new campers can be expensive; some beds actually smaller than they appear in photos; may require a lot of gas to tow.

 

RVs….

  • Pros—very little to set up; “home-on-wheels” style comfort with nicer kitchens, beds and bathrooms (maybe even washer/dryer); large space (especially bump-outs); ideal for long-term camping (weeks to months).

 

  • Cons—very expensive; may not fit in some campgrounds; must tow a separate vehicle if you want to go other places; expensive to repair/can break down while traveling; various states have different restraining laws when traveling in an RV (children must still be in a car seat facing forward which can be a problem in an RV—best if they ride in a separate vehicle).

 

4. Be prepared.

Plan and budget well. Get to know the campground and local area well before setting off. Pack what you need and find out if you can purchase items you missed at a nearby store.Enjoy nature in beautiful state and national parks.

  • Find out about all the amenities of the campground. Do they have electric/water hookups? Pool? Bike rentals? Horseback riding? Boating? Hiking trails? Playgrounds? Campground sponsored games and activities?  Seasonal events? A nice view? A campground store?

 

  • What is your total budget? What is the cost of gas, food, campsite, rentals? Be sure to check out all the “extras” you’d like to do, not only at the campground but also the local area (i.e. museums, restaurants, shopping, etc.).

 

  • If your child wants to swim but needs assistance, take swim lessons. Learn to ride a bike before camping. Buy the necessary equipment to make sure everyone is safe.

 

  • Be sure to pack comforting sensory items if camping is new and strange for your autistic child.

 

5. Be realistic about what your family can handle.  

If you are completely new to camping (i.e. never even been inside a tent or camper), then consider renting a camper. Some campgrounds will even have their own campers available for you to rent. Others, like Fort Wilderness at Walt Disney World, will allow you to rent a camper that is brought in and set up by a local company. You get the benefits of camping without all of the work.

Some tents are a cinch to set up even for those certain challenges.

  • Buying camp gear is a big investment!  Consider how many days out of the year you’d like to camp and how much time, effort and work you want to put into setting up camp. Do you want the old-fashioned camping experience of sleeping on the ground and cooking outside or do you want to be more comfortable in a nature setting?  Are you in this for the long haul or just want to experiment with camping?  Ask yourself these questions to figure out the type of camping equipment you need.

 

  • Assess the skills, interests and patience of everyone in the family. What safety skills does your autistic child have? Do they need supervision while swimming, biking, walking, etc.? If you plan for certain activities but someone suddenly doesn’t want to participate, have a back-up plan. Ease into the experience if this is new for most members of the family (especially children with autism). Camping requires learning different skills, so be gentle with yourself and others.

 

  • If your family is miserable despite efforts to make it enjoyable, don’t be afraid to “throw in the towel”. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to camp again—make adjustments for the next time (i.e. location, number of days, type of sleeping arrangements, etc.). Maybe staying in a cabin instead of a camper would be best.

 

Unwind…

A pop-up is an ideal "middle-ground" camping experience with autism.Successful camping experiences actually take a bit of practice.

It took our family three times of setting up and tearing down the pop-up camper to feel comfortable with the process (and not get upset with one another).  We wanted a step-up from tent sleeping without losing the more traditional camping experience.  My kids appreciate the large king-size beds. I love the heat and air conditioning.

We still tent-camp with the Scouts. But having a comfortable camper allows us to relax and sleep a little better. When we retire, I’d love to get a travel trailer for longer excursions to places on my bucket-list.

Camping is a wonderful way for families to reconnect by “unplugging” and interact with one another more.  You can relax for a little while without the burden of each person’s different daily routines and other home obligations.

Even if it’s only for a weekend, short trips are often what is needed to feel rejuvenated from everyday life.

With the right planning and attitude, camping can be a joyful, memorable experience!

 

 

National Park Access for Autism

National Park Access Pass for Autism

Explore our great national parks with the Acces Pass

 

America the Beautiful Access Pass

What if I told you that there was a national park access pass for those with autism?

This little secret was hidden from me for the longest time. Ten years passed from first diagnosis until we actually discovered this.  I lament the fact that if I had known about it sooner we would have taken advantage of all of the benefits that come with this Access Pass.

We would have traveled and explored the country way more than we did!

Of course, most agencies, hospitals, and schools that provide that initial diagnosis are not going to tell you about every single resource helpful for every stage of life. They may provide you a “what now?” book from an autism organization. Then you get sent on your merry way to navigate the massively complicated autistic world for yourself.

Good luck, matey!

I honestly can’t pinpoint the exact moment I found out the Access Pass.  I’m pretty sure that it came from a Medicaid waiver agency representative who mentioned it nonchalantly in conversation.  But I do distinctly remember my mind being blown.

Well, let me guide you to some clarity about this incredible governmental benefit.  See for yourself what a wonderful gift this can be for autistic individuals and their families.

If you want to witness the grandest places in America, like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or the Smoky Mountains (for FREE!)—as well as receive deep discounts on camping and other recreational activities—apply for the America the Beautiful-National Parks & Federal Recreation Lands Access Pass today!

 

Stand in awe of the Grand Canyon using the Access Pass

 

About the National Parks Access Pass for Autism and Other Special Needs

What can you do with the Access Pass?  You can gain entrance into any associated federal recreation program for FREE that accepts it. This includes:

  • National Park Service (includes all national parks, national historic sites and others)
  • US Forest Service (includes national forests that have camping, hiking, horseman’s camps and lakes)
  • Fish and Wildlife Service (outdoor recreation plus historical and archaeological sites)
  • Bureaus of Land Management (hunting, fishing and game shooting)
  • Bureau of Reclamation (mostly water recreation in the Western states)
  • US Corp of Engineers (many manage reservoirs)

What other benefits are provided by this Access Pass?  You can get deep discounts on certain recreational activities, such as camping (50% discount), guided tours, and others such as boat launches.

Who can apply?  Anyone with a permanent developmental disability. This includes those with autism-related diagnosis well as any other cognitive-sensory disorder. Any age can get the pass.

How do you apply?  You need documentation of a diagnosis. They accept government-related documents, like proof of having the Medicaid waiver, but a doctor’s note should also do.

Where do you apply?  You can apply through the USPS mail service by downloading this paper application or you can visit a local office that is listed as a participating federal recreation site.

How long is it good for? It is good for one’s entire lifetime.

How much is it?  It’s free if you visit one of the federal offices; it’s $10 if you apply via mail.

What happens if I lose the card?  Simply reapply for another one.

How do I find a good place for our family to visit?  If you already know what type of setting or activities you’d like to do, you can explore the index page of the National Park Service. In Indiana we have the Indiana Dunes National Park near Chicago and the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial near the Ohio River in the south.

Accessing Recreational Opportunities

To access recreational opportunities at your favorite destinations, go to Recreation.gov to reserve camping, guided tours, and more. The site also includes a trip planner. So if you know the dates you want to travel and where you want to visit, it can give you several accommodation options.  Once you have received your Access Pass, you can enter the ID number when you make reservation for the discount.

OR…if you not quite sure where and when you would like to travel, you can do some website exploration on the National Park Service site to see what ideas pop out for you.

Let’s say you and your family are really into early American history and have been studying the famous Clark family.  Here is a trip scenario based on two very important figures during and after the Revolutionary War:

  • George Rogers Clark led an expedition across icy waters to force the British to surrender their fort at present-day Vincennes, thus capturing the entire Northwest Territory for the new American government in 1779.  His memorial is a National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana

 

  • Perhaps a little more famous is his brother, William Clark.  Along with Merriweather Lewis and Sacagawea, he explored the lands west of the Mississippi River from 1804-1806.  The Lewis & Clark Full Day Pacific Coast Trip includes seeing the lands their expedition saw over 200 years ago. With driving and self-guided walking tours, you can see history and nature come alive on the Lewis & Clark Historical Park and Trail.

 

The possibilities are endless!  The National Park Access Pass for autism and other special needs makes it very affordable for families to have short getaways or longer vacations in some of the most stunning places on earth.

 

Dream Away!

Do you ever dream about taking your family to see the Grand Canyon?  Or hiking through a Sequoia forest?  Or camping in the Great Smoky Mountains?

With the Access Pass to national parks, there is no excuse for those with autism and other special needs NOT to travel!

So, start creating your “bucket list” of places you always dreamed about to begin your next adventure!

 

 

Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth

Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth

Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth

Because we are a Scouting family, I know exactly why Scouts BSA is terrific for autistic youth.  Both of my autistic teens are very involved in Scouts.

I can attest to the amazing progress in my kids that comes with belonging to Scouts BSA.

“Adventure is out there!”

That’s one of my favorite movie quotes from the very cool movie “UP!”  I just love Russell.  He has an infectious enthusiasm for the Scouting way of life.  He is also my husband’s character avatar (who happens to be a BSA troop scoutmaster). No, seriously. My husband looked exactly like Russell when he was a kid.

When my autistic son turned 11, my husband couldn’t wait to introduce him to Scouts.  Camping expeditions, learning knots, campfire cooking, canoe trips, patrol leadership…where else can a young teen do all this and MORE than in Scouts?

Maybe you think…Ok, I get that it’s beneficial for many teen boys and girls.  But why should my autistic child get involved?  Won’t it be another peer-group that will keep my child at arm’s length?

I get it. I had the same fears. Having the social-communication challenges that often come with autism don’t make the road to travel the life stages very easy.

But being involved in Scouts can!  Now that my son is an Eagle Scout, I can share why I believe Scouting is terrific—and actually a better alternative to traditional therapy—for those on the spectrum.

 

Relax in calm settings on Scout outings.

 

The Benefits of Scouts BSA for Those with Autism

Scouts BSA provides that “safe”, natural, inclusive group environment with one’s peers and adult mentors.  In Scouts an autistic youth can develop appropriate skills in social-communication, executive-functioning, confident leadership, self-help, and self-advocacy.

All through FUN ADVENTURES, of course!

In other words, the benefits for a teen with autism to become a Scout are beyond measure!

1. It has a supportive environment for those needing a place to feel included.

No other group-oriented environment provides the same level of long-term, consistent support like Scouts (starting at Kindergarten with Cub Scouts).

Sports and band are only for a few seasons. Church youth groups and high school classes have a single-minded focus.

Therapy environments feel forced and unnatural.  Parents have enough of their plate at home…plus they can’t be their teen’s only role-model if they want him or her to develop independence skills.

A good Scout troop will be…

…Kind and respectful to every person.

Any peer Scout who antagonizes or discourages those on the spectrum would never be tolerated. Ask what protocols have been implemented to not only prevent bullying but to encourage positive interaction among peers.

.…Accommodating to individual needs.

The troops should encourage each person to progress through the ranks at his/her own pace while still giving them challenges to master in order to gain self-confidence. Ask if the troop leadership has been trained to recognize and support those with cognitive-sensory differences.

They should also be willing to meet with parents and discuss how the IEP or other assessment can be used to effectively develop a good plan of achievement for the individual Scout.

Read my article about accessing special needs accommodations in Scouts BSA.

…Building trust by meeting on a consistent basis.

My family’s Scouts BSA troop meets once a week all year for ages 11-18.  They have campouts or other events at least once a month. Obviously, good trusting relationships can be built in such an environment.

If your child would like to join at a young age, get involved in a Cub Pack (ages 5-11). Venturing Crews are high-adventure troops for young men and women ages 14-21.

 

Spend a week at Scout camp doing fun activities!

 

2. The scouting experience provides “free therapy”.

No other environment provides a place to learn therapeutic skills like Scouts BSA…without paying for expensive sessions!

Let me break that down by the 3 main “diagnostic traits” associated with autism:

Social-communication:

Scouts learn to communicate their needs to each other in order to accomplish tasks. For example, a patrol must talk and work together to solve a problem or master a challenge, like setting up a tent campsite or making a campfire recipe.

Most of the troop activities are interactive, so an autistic child will gain valuable social and communication skills. Very few (if any) therapy settings provide this level of interactive group learning to develop good social and communication skills.

Executive-Functioning:

By earning merit badges and ranks, Scouts learn to set short- and long-term achievement goals. With the help of adult leaders, they develop discipline to see those goals fulfilled.

Specific merit badges teach time management, cooking, self-care and hygiene, safety and first aid, awareness of the community, swim skills, and many, many more valuable life skills…everything that leads to greater independence, a strong work-ethic, and compassion for others.

Behavioral therapists may spend months working on ONE particular skill set, while Scouts provides the opportunities to enhance executive-functioning skills in a real-world, demonstrable setting.

Scouting also provides a setting that no office setting can possibly achieve. It allows them to also translate life skills into the real world.  That is why Scouts BSA is terrific for autistic youth

Sensory:

The world of Scouts is a tactile world. There is a lot of hands-on activities to satisfy those who are sensory-seekers as well as those who need to develop fine and gross motor skills.

Some autistic Scouts enjoy the task of tying knots while others like the visual-spatial challenge of orienteering (which is using a compass to find hidden locations).

Being in a natural, calming environment during camp-outs is tremendously beneficial for those prone to sensory overload from other environments (especially without the distractions of electronics).

 

3. An autistic individual can learn valuable job skills.

Scouts is the perfect environment to develop both “hard” and “soft” job skills.

  • Marketing and sales? The troop sells popcorn, pizzas and snack food at festivals.

 

  • Face-to-face customer service?  The troop provides dinner fundraisers, serving guests with a smile. They also do many face-to-face community-service projects, such as collecting scrap metal and other “good neighbor” duties.

 

  • Leadership skills? They can serve in various roles, such as Patrol Leader, Troop Guide, and Quartermaster. Some are election-based and others volunteer-based.

 

  • Public speaking? Each scout learns to speak in front of the whole troops and parents during the Court of Honor ceremonies as they discuss what they learned earning their merit badges and rank advancements.

 

  • Interview skills? They promote themselves by explaining the reasons they should be elected to certain leadership positions within the troop.

 

  • Actual employment? Scouts have the opportunity to work at their local Scout camps.  My son worked as kitchen staff last summer and will again this year because they want him back so badly.  The camp director has a brother with autism and he was extremely helpful in getting my son acclimated to his job.  This was also a great opportunity to live away from home during the week to gain independent living skills. He came back a very confident, hard-working and conscientious young man.

 

Working towards the Citizenship in the Community merit badge

4. It provides many opportunities for family bonding.

Scouts provides a wonderful avenue to developing a stronger bond with one’s teenager. This is another reason why Scouts BSA is terrific for autistic youth.

Teens who work alongside or at least witness their parents or other family members supporting them in their own interests and hobbies develop a greater relationship with them.

Here are reasons why parents are  highly encouraged to be involved in their son or daughter’s troop:

 

Scouts see their parents as a model to emulate.

When a scout sees his or her parent modeling the “Scout Motto” with others in his troop, he or she gains a deeper appreciation and respect for them. As the teen Scout matures, so does his/her family member in a leadership capacity.

Scouts work with their parents to achieve their rank advancements and merit badges.

Often a scout must complete many of the tasks required to earn badges at home.  For example, a family member can take the scout to witness a town hall meeting or help develop a food budget and menu list for the next camp-out.

Scouts work and have fun alongside their family.

Many parents and their scouts enjoy the time they spend at the weekend camp-outs together.  My husband and son loved to develop tasty meals together for campfire cooking.  Without the interference of the computer, phone or social media, they can spend quality one-on-one or group time together building memories.

 

Explore nature during fun Scouting expeditions

5. It offers a variety of thrilling adventure trips.

Scouts is unique from many other organizations—if your child loves adventure, then Scouts BSA provides! Not only does it have many council-based “reservations” (or camps) with a plethora of outdoor and indoor activities, but it also has several “high-adventure” camps throughout the country.

They also participate in many guided educational or nature-based excursions. Some even go on hiking expeditions in other countries. These are sure to boost your teen’s self-confidence!

Summer Camps:

Troops have the option to stay a week at their own council’s camp or they can go to another state. For most years our troop stayed close to home at more local camps. They were able to earn several merit badges during their time, learn valuable skills, and gain confidence being away from home.

Indian lore, photography, kayaking, swimming, cooking, movie-making, scuba-diving, and archery are just a few of the many things a scout can do at camp.

This year our troop is going to Medicine Mountain Camp in South Dakota to explore Mt. Rushmore and other surrounding sites.

Check out my article on helpful tips on getting your special needs youth ready for summer camp.

 

Guided Adventures:

Does your teen love space? Perhaps your troop can go to Space Camp for a week in Huntsville, Alabama.

Would your teen enjoy roughing it in a peaceful setting, canoeing and fishing? Then a guided tour of Holding a baby alligator during a Sea Base, Florida Keys expeditionBoundary Waters in Minnesota is the ticket.

Does your teen dream about sailing in the Caribbean? Sea Base in the Florida Keys is a Scouts BSA High-Adventure Camp that allows scouts to stay overnight on a 40-foot, multi-cabin sailboat and learn sailing skills for the week. Our troop did this, visited an alligator farm and rode a high-speed airboat through the Everglades. My son absolutely loved this experience! (And now wants to move to Florida…)

These adventurous excursions continue to grow in number each year, allowing more scouts to explore more places in the great outdoors and gain world-perspective.

 

Valuable Life Skills Learned in Scouts BSA

I truly believe that, more than any therapy or other organization, the scouting experience has shaped my autistic son into a confident young man with a valuable set of skills to lead him into a positive direction into adulthood.

He has achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, one of the proudest moments in our family’s lives.

Now that Boys Scouts of America has been changed to Scouts BSA, teen girls can join troops and earn the same merit badges and ranks as the boys.

My 15-year-old autistic daughter just joined the inaugural female troop that is affiliated with my husband’s and son’s troop.

I am very excited that now teen girls get the same opportunities to experience these benefits of Scouting!

Reach high and dream big in Scouts BSA!

Being a scout will give your child the opportunities to reach high and dream big! This is, I believe, why Scouts BSA is terrific for autistic youth.

If “adventure is out there”, you will certainly find it in Scouts BSA!

 

For more information about Scouts BSA, visit the official website.

 

 

Ease your child into camping

Easing Your Child Into Camping

Camping under the stars

In this article I outline the the five steps to take (in order, preferably) to easing your child into the camping experience for the first time.

Making camping with autism a positive experience

It’s one thing to stay in a hotel with comfy beds and the allure of a pool.  It’s another to practically sleep on the ground with nothing but a thin nylon tent separating you and nature.

Many children on the spectrum are adamant about maintaining a nighttime routine.  One little change may lead to a meltdown.

Let me state the obvious: camping disrupts that normal sleep pattern. New “bed,” new place to sleep, new routine, new sights and sounds.  That means unpredictable behaviors.

It’s one thing to avoid camping if it’s just not appealing to everyone in the family.  But if you’re avoiding camping adventures just because you want to avoid unwanted behaviors, I urge you to seriously reconsider!

Don’t miss out on the potential to bond with family and friends in a relaxing, therapeutic environment!  By slowly easing your child into camping adventures, you will find it a much less stressful process to instill a love of vacationing in the great outdoors.

 

Learning to love camping takes time

The smell of roasting marshmallows over the fire.  The thrill of catching fireflies.  The fun of camping in a tent. Everyone is relaxed and happy.

That idyllic picture of camping is not often reality.

We introduced our young kids to camping jumping in head-first. We started off great.  We fished and cooked and played on the playground.

But by 5 AM the next morning my 5-year-old daughter was crying inconsolably. Nothing seemed to calm her down.

Fearing wrath from the entire campsite, who were all still asleep, we packed up our equipment with rapid speed. By 7 AM we had left the campsite with very cranky kids.

We vowed not to try this again for a while.

And we didn’t…. something I regret.

Even with the most seasoned and experienced campers, things don’t always go as planned.

Sometimes an important item is left at home. Your gear doesn’t set up properly.  Someone doesn’t sleep well.  Someone is complaining about the food.  Someone can’t stop crying.  Mosquitos are sucking the life out of you!  UGH!

And then you start thinking… Why didn’t we just stay home?!

Actually, that’s not a bad idea.

 

“Wean” into camping

Maybe, like mine, your own childhood memories are filled with wonderful camping expeditions with your family. Maybe, like me, you can’t wait to share that love with your own kids.

But camping can feel like a very strange and scary thing to do for an autistic child who may become terrified when his or her daily routine is thrown out of whack and comfort zone severely challenged.

My kids were on the verge of getting their autism diagnoses when we first camped. Once I became familiar with autism, my child-rearing philosophy changed.  I realized (many times the hard way) that adapting my kids to new things needed to be set at their own pace.

And, yet, I still needed to motivate them enough to try new challenges. I had to be a little more patient and “wean” them into unfamiliar experiences.  If I had known then what I know now, we would have introduced them more gradually to idea of camping and helped ease them into camping.

If the idea of camping can be introduced in “digestible, bite-size chunks”, then the actual experience away from home can go a little more smoothly and become something your child will actually enjoy.

 

5 Steps to Easing Your Child into Camping

I recommend that you do these steps in order and as long as necessary to feel comfortable before moving to the next one.

 

1. Set up camp in your child’s bedroom.

What a fun way to introduce the idea of camping than in your child’s most comfortable place!

I always wanted a bed-fitted tent when I was a child, but I couldn’t convince my parents to buy one. So, I set up blankets over my bedpost and invited my sisters into my “tent” to play games and read stories.

Get your child comfortable sleeping in a tent in his or her own bed, whether it’s an actual bed-tent or something created. Maintain your normal bedtime routine. Bring in comfortable, familiar items (favorite blanket, toy or sensory equipment).

Use this time to talk about it as “camping” in order to associate it with a positive, comforting experience. Practice using flashlights.

*(If your child is co-sleeping with you, consider setting up something beside your bed.)

 

2. Set up camp in your living room.

This can be done during the day on a pretend-play basis at first. Keep a small play tent up permanently if you have room.

Do what you would do in a real camping experience: pretend sleep (or take real naps), pretend building a campfire, pretend cook, pretend fish, etc.

Include favorite comfort sensory items, like a soft or weighted blanket, fidget spinner, or a stuffed toy.

Watch videos of people camping to show what it’s like. Find or create your own social story of the outdoor camping experience so your child can associate fun “home camping” with camping in a new place.

When your child is ready, set up an overnight “living room camping” in which everyone in the family is involved.  It could be included alongside your own weekend routine (like a movie or game-night) but call it “inside camping” when it’s time to sleep.

Share your enthusiasm with your child—make it fun!  Do this a few times until you think your child is ready to try a new place to camp.

 

3. Set up camp in your backyard (if possible).

Moving your camp from indoors to outdoors can feel like sudden transition, even though you are still at home. There might be some anxiety about the darkness, being outside, hearing different sounds, etc.

Consider setting up a tent outside during the day for pretend-play first.  Let your child explore the fun of outside-camping on his/her own.

If you can set up a campfire in your backyard, begin to introduce how to behave around a fire and perhaps cooking over a fire during the evening hours. Start introducing camping tools, like hot dog forks.

When you’re ready, have the family move to the tent to sleep. Be sure to include the same favorite bedtime routines and sensory items. Even if your child can only sleep half-way through the night outside, it’s a big step!

Keep trying until you make it through the night.

 

4. Set up camp at a family or friend’s house.

At this point your child should be more comfortable being outside. But now it’s time to move to another place away from home.

I suggest possibly setting up camp in the backyard of a beloved family member or friend as a way to transition to a real campground experience. Maybe grandma or grandpa would like to host your family’s camp-out and be willing to welcome you in the house in the event your child becomes anxious.

Remember, same routine…same comfort items.

 

5. Set up camp at a nearby campground or state park.

When ready, consider staying somewhere close by for one night, say…maybe less than an hour away (if possible).

Some campgrounds require more than one night minimum on holidays, so if you’re not ready for more than one night you may have to go on non-holiday weekends.  That’s probably best to avoid the crowds.

Conduct some research into the campground. Does it have nice amenities that will allow your child to feel comfortable and have fun? Fishing, swimming, playground, hiking, outdoor games?

Be sure to include the familiar things from the previous camping experiences at home, including favorite meals, bedtime routine and personal sensory items.

The fact that the family is sleeping together in one tent or camper will provide some comfort in this new situation as well.

 

Small Steps Lead to Giant Achievements

While camping may be a hard transition for your special needs child, it will foster in him or her a love of nature as well as some incredible life skills.

When children overcomes their fears, they often feel a burst of self-confidence. This leads to a greater willingness to try new things beyond their comfort zones.  Camping provides many new experiences to build self-confidence.

Besides vacations with family, one of the best ways to learn life skills and build confidence while camping is participating in a scouting organization.

My 17-year-old son has camped so many times with his Boy Scout troop I lost count. Simple weekend camp-outs led to week-long adventures.

When he was 14-years-old he spent several nights along lakesides at Boundary Waters in Minnesota.  This past summer he explored the iconic Black Hills in South Dakota.  His ultimate camping adventure was sleeping on a sailboat for a week in the Florida Keys.

Because he was comfortable enough to sleep outside away from home and family for a week at a time, he got a job at the local scout camp.  He now has gained valuable employment skills.

Apart from therapy, Scouting has provided some of the greatest social and developmental benefits for my autistic kids. Read my article “Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth” to understand how involvement in Scouts leads to incredible personal growth.

 

Easing into Camping is the Key to Self-Growth

To access the potential development of life skills and self-confidence, consider camping!  Hopefully, the five steps I have outlined of easing your child into the camping experience will help significantly in achieving those goals!

The trick is to maintain a sense of familiarity by using similar routines and comfort items from home and transfer the camping experience across different settings—from inside to outside and from home to another place.

Try to keep the experience positive all the way through the learning process to reinforce that camping is a “good thing”. Push limits but recognize when enough is enough.  It may take weeks, months or even years…but you’ll get there!

For more information about the sensory and autism-related considerations of the camping experience, read my article “Camping with Autism“. You will also find helpful tips on campers to help you decide which ones is most suitable for your needs.

Above all, have fun!!  The whole experience gets easier the more times you try it!

 

 

If you think your older child may be ready for camp experience for one night or several nights away from home, check out this very informative article by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.