We have 19 years of experience with summer camps, 14 of them with N. My husband and I work for a living and we have had to find a program of suitable length and duration for our kids when school is out. Most of the summer camps the older 2 boys attended were quite well done overall and the kids had some fun and learned a few new skills.
Our experience with camps for N is otherwise. N is autistic and developmentally disabled.
I realize that we are victims of timing, and N has been an unfortunate guinea pig for a relatively new social policy of “integration” of the disabled; and nowhere to date has it been more obvious how ill conceived the implementation has been, than at summer camp.
Initially we went to the local municipal programs which offered a certain number of spots for disabled kids, for a slightly higher fee. It was obvious that N was not very happy to go to camp, and was very glad to go home at the end of the day. The price was right. The problem was – the programming was for normally-abled kids and there were no modifications for the disability. N could not participate because he did not have the ability to do so. The “helper” walked him around, pushed him on the swing, gave him treats – to keep him occupied while the camp went on without him. Integration assumption – if you put a kid with disabilities with normal kids they will pick up skills with osmosis, just like normal kids. Unfortunately that is not the case.
We then hired a very kind and capable high school student for the summer to come to our house and watch Nick. She was excellent – N loved her and was happy to hang out with her. One day he went to her house so he could swim in her pool. That was during his phase where he was given the nickname “Serial Deck Poo-er” Yep you guessed what happened. At least it was not in the pool. Lets just say that from that point on, there were no more swimming days at her house. She rolled with the punches, she stayed with the job, when many would have fled, and we will always be grateful for her help. And she went to university.
N did attend autism camp put on by Autism Ontario for one summer and it was GREAT! A little bit more expensive than we liked, but Nick loved that camp because they did things that he could be successful at. Swimming, hiking, trampoline jumping, going to the park, cooking, shopping, really basic practical things! No games with rules that are impossible to understand. No sports with rules that are impossible to understand. Sadly the camp did not continue due to lack of funds. But – we learned the value that programs developed specifically for kids like N offered. We learned that camp integration had to be much more than just physically putting our kid with normally functioning peers. And we went in search of something like it.
Not a surprise – hard to find a camp for special needs. Expensive and risky due to the nature of the clients, special needs programs need support and the only things that were getting any government funding were programs that tried to include kids like mine in with normal kids and benefited nobody, by providing only enhanced supervision. Our local autism service provider had a summer camp but it was divided by week and age group, and therefore only offered us 2 weeks out of the summer. Nope – if we want to work then that wont work! Even private programs were scarce. Then a stroke of pure luck happened. I think it was a miracle, it was like we won the lottery! N was taking special needs trampoline at our local gymnastics centre and I asked the instructor if she knew any summer camps for the differently abled. It turned out that she did. She ran a camp with her son’s long-time worker in the summer and on Saturdays during the school year. All of the kids that attend are lower functioning and the program is appropriate for their abilities. They visit a Swiss Chalet restaurant that prints visual menus for the non verbal kids to indicate their food choice by circling a picture with a pencil. They practice riding on the city bus and letting strangers enter their personal space and sit beside them. They go to the mall and practice how to behave in a clothing store. They buy food at the grocery store, and prepare their lunch. They swim in public pools and go to the movies and learn not to make noises that frighten other people.
For integration to work, we have to accommodate them and not the other way around. It takes work. It takes special skills and a willingness to think and live outside the box. It is expensive. It is totally worth it.
The cost of our camp is $100/day and I shudder to think how many people cannot afford to have their child attend something like this. We are the lucky ones. We can make sacrifices, reduce expectations. We shop frequently at second hand stores, drive cars into the ground, go without home improvements or luxury vacations or RRSP (retirement savings) contributions but we are able to send N to camp. I think all families with autistic and/or DD kids should be able to do the same. I am sad that those who lead our province are so mis-informed about kids like my son. Special needs deserve and need, special camps. That is part of integration, not segregation.
I am sad that camp is done for this summer, and grateful for those who have made it such a wonderful experience for N.