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.