What is autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, children who have autism may experience a variety of symptoms with differing levels of severity that brings them within the autism spectrum and makes socialization a challenging experience. It is common for children with autism to have difficulty communicating and interacting with others, repeat certain behaviors, and display other symptoms that may affect their ability to function in school or in other areas of life.
Though children with autism respond to situations in different ways, with love from their families and understanding and support from the community, (washingtonparent.com/autism-myths-and-truths/) they can be happy, successful, and enjoy the same kinds of activities that other children enjoy – such as summer camps!
Exploring summer camp options in the DMV
The Washington D.C. metropolitan area, with its culturally rich populations, access to many museums, historic landmarks, military families and diverse schooling, is an extraordinary place to raise a child, but it may be overwhelming for children with autism. A good way to help your child with autism to process the extreme sensory experiences of our area is by understanding your child’s specific needs and finding smaller camp venues with smaller camper populations.
Children with autism do well in environments where there is structure and routine. An easy way to assure your child on the autism spectrum enjoys their time at a summer camp is by finding summer camps structured with inclusion in general-population camps or those specifically tailored to children with special needs. In either case, your child is sure to have a blast in the summer!
Searching for summer camps that offer inclusion and access
According to the American Camp Association, “diversity, equity and inclusion are at the heart of a thriving camp experience.” By advocating for an inclusive camp environment, the association hopes to effect “positive change in the world when youth … of all backgrounds, beliefs, identities and abilities are valued and actively engaged” in a singular camp experience. In short, an inclusive camp (washingtonparent.com/the-benefits-of-special-needs-camps/) seeks to include everyone, regardless of the characteristics that differentiate children.
Summer camps in our area are slowly starting to change their marketing and programming by taking into account children with learning differences and openly stating mission statements and policies that both prohibit discrimination and warmly embrace the humanity of including every child despite their abilities. You will find inclusive language within the websites of schools, faith-based organizations, recreation centers and private groups.
Inclusion camps in the Washington, D.C. metro area
Our area features many wonderful inclusive summer camps. Here are a few examples.
The Bender JCC of Washington in Rockville, Maryland, where “youth and teens with special needs are embraced in a warm, caring and supportive environment … through inclusive, innovative programming that enlightens, educates and boosts self-esteem.” (benderjccgw.org/camp-youth-teens/special-needs/)
Under the Stars in Dumfries, Virginia, “an overnight summer camp program for ages 5-17 [that] takes place in the Prince William Forest National Park” in “a supportive, inclusive camp community that values each child’s uniqueness, celebrates our differences and respects nature and the planet.” (underthestarsinc.org/)
Imagination Stage in Bethesda, Maryland which “provides equitable access to all programming, from added inclusion supports to peer-group access classes in order to provide the most successful experience for each student.” (imaginationstage.org/camps/)
A delicate balance between formal diagnoses and characteristics of autism
When parents take their children to the doctor and receive a formal diagnosis of autism, searching for summer camps and other resources is a fairly easy process because there are many reputable places ready to help children. It becomes a little tricky, however, when a child displays symptoms of behavior that may fall somewhere within the autism spectrum.
In many cases, parents may suspect their child has autism, but have not yet visited a medical professional or obtained a formal diagnosis. Even in those instances in which children may have difficulties with impulse control or developing healthy peer relationships and lack a formal diagnosis of autism, they are still encouraged to participate as active campers in inclusion programs.
According to Shanna Sorrells, senior manager of access and inclusion at Imagination Stage, “We love learning about [a] child’s interests and passions … – we want to learn about [the] WHOLE child! Once we know the child’s needs, we share that information with their teacher and can place an Inclusion Facilitator in the room.”
Shanna indicated that Imagination Stage does intake calls to learn more about the children who register for their summer camps. The intake process is a great time to learn specific things about the children and begin to formulate ways to help each child’s specific needs during the summer camp. She also believes one of the best things parents can do is to ask summer camps about the type of assistance they have in place to support children with special needs. With open communications between parents and the staff at the camps, parents will be able to advocate for their children better and obtain a more successful camp experience for their children, irrespective of their diagnosis or lack thereof of autism.
Specialty summer camps for children on the autism spectrum
The Washington, D.C. metropolitan area also features a few specialty camps that are specifically designed for children on the autism spectrum and children with special needs.
Camp Aristotle, with locations in Fairfax, Virginia, as well as Silver Spring and Columbia, Maryland have “teachers and staff [that] are specially trained to understand [the] needs [of children] who may not have a formal diagnosis or receptive/expressive/pragmatic language challenges [or] frustration in camps where their need for tools such as sensory breaks were not respected or understood. (capitalschools.org/programs)
Verbal Beginnings, with summer camps throughout Maryland and Virginia, offer groups “led by experienced Board Certified Behavior Analysts and behavior technicians [with] therapeutic opportunities for children to learn and develop social skills with their peers.” (verbalbeginnings.com/aba-programs/social-skills-for-kids/)
By identifying the types of summer camp experiences that would benefit your children on the autism spectrum and reaching out to prospective camps with detailed questions about support systems in place, you will help your child successfully participate in a fulfilling summer camp experience!