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 (142 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 (108 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”.