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Summer Camps for Children with Special Needs

A mom of two children with autism talks about summer camps and funding for children with special needs.

 

It’s almost summertime, a season which conjures up for me a childhood including vast swatches of unfettered time, staying out late, and one or two bad sunburns which I would always deeply regret attaining. Summer was clearly my unabashed favorite, filled with months of limited responsibilities, freedom, and the luxury of sleeping in without the clarion call of an alarm clock reminding me I had a bus to catch.

Clearly, all of this transpired before I had children.

While summer is still my “Cinderella at the ball”, I now have two little kids to care for during the course of its eleven week stay, and with my particular children, those long days can be challenging. While my boys are wonderful (I have to do a bit of mom bragging here), their particular brand of autism includes a great deal of impulsivity, which has made it difficult for me or any other adult to take them out of the house simultaneously.

My goal (at least for a few more years) is never to have to decide whether to address my eldest’s son’s strong desire to leave a venue in under an hour, or choose to rein in my youngest from whatever event or fun-looking toy might be within his reach. I plan on putting two healthy, and hopefully exhausted, little boys to bed every single night of their childhoods.

I still have goals.

My eldest son is fortunate enough to have an eight-week stretch of summer school included in his IEP, and I know how incredibly lucky that makes both me as a parent, and him as a student. Those extra two months of academics and behavioral routines truly help prevent him from regressing during those hot months, a fact for which I am very grateful. While his program does span most of the summer, we always end up having two or three weeks to fill.

Given that Justin generally doesn’t like to remain anywhere longer than the amount of time it takes to watch a sit-com without commercials, filling that void for him has been a challenge. I’ve found over trial and error that he actually prefers to attend a summer camp rather than hang out with his mother all day (he is nine after all). I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not only found a few that fit his needs, I’ve also located several resources that have assisted us not only in locating those programs, but have provided a stipend as well.

Trust me, many camps for autistic children don’t come cheap.

I can unequivocally recommend two camps in particular, one designed for neurotypical children but who also accepted my boys as participants, and one created to specifically cater to children with disabilities. The first is Olde Riverside School and Day Camp, located on Herbertsville Road in Brick, NJ. Both of my children have attended this program with their “shadows” (helpers our family has paid to accompany them), and had a wonderful experience.

Olde Riverside’s program harkens back to a simpler time- there aren’t any frills to speak of, just good old-fashioned fun. One of the biggest perks of this camp is their swimming program, complete with certified lifeguard/instructors who teach the children their strokes and water safety on a daily basis. Zachary, my youngest, made great strides in their pool (he liked to make the pretty lifeguards proud of him), and I truly saw his confidence as a swimmer grow by leaps and bounds.

While not a huge fan of the swimming program, my eldest child did enter the water every day and enjoyed the routine of camp, where the activities ranged from crafts to read-aloud, and games that changed about every half-hour. Due to his autism diagnosis he was also required to attend with his shadow, and for five summers he truly enjoyed being a camper.

My boy doesn’t like a lot of things, so this is truly a compliment to the staff.

The second camp I can wholeheartedly recommend is Camp Bridge, located in Wall Township on Herbertsville Road, and housed at the Camp Zehnder YMCA. Camp Bridge is specifically geared toward children with disabilities, and has successfully entertained kids with ADHD and ASD (autism spectrum disorders) for many summers. The camp runs from 8:30 to 3:00 which is convenient to parents, and includes a multitude of different activities to draw in the children. Since it’s located at Camp Zehnder Justin also had access to their pool, a welcome diversion for him during those hot days.

The camp’s owners, Bethanie Raichle (a Board Certified Behavior Analyst who works for several local school districts in Monmouth and Ocean counties), and Cyndee Policastro-Smith (a teacher for Toms River School’s autism program) provide a number of activities for the campers. These range from “morning circle” (which helps maintain the school routine) to arts and crafts, plus one field trip per week.

Another bonus is that I felt Justin required a one-on-one aide to participate, and Camp Bridge was able to supply that individual for me, with an extra fee. My eldest has attended the camp for two summers, and will be happily returning this year for a third. Bethanie and Cyndee truly “get” children with autism, and I always felt as if I was leaving Justin in safe and competent hands.

Of course, camps cost money (what doesn’t), and to that end I have found the DDD (Division of Developmental Disabilities) to be a great resource. A month or two after we relocated to New Jersey when Justin was two I applied to this organization for respite care, and eventually I was granted twenty hours a month. Our provider under this agency is the ARC, and through the assistance of my case manager we have had several wonderful individuals over the years who have truly bonded with my boys (some we’ve found on our own, some were suggested to us through the ARC).

There are several programs for respite under the DDD, and the one we’ve chosen pays our helpers directly. In this way we were able to use our monthly hours to send our helpers to camp with the boys to act as their shadows, which really helped offset the cost.

Another way to underwrite the tuition for camp is to contact the DDD directly, and ask for a list of camps that are “DDD-approved” (this is of course only applicable to families who have applied and have already been accepted for services by the agency). I’m told that every year the list of accepted camps continues to grow.

Finally, when my son’s horse-back riding camp had to close due to financial restraints, I wanted to make sure I left no stone overturned in procuring a new location for him. I contacted the Family Support Center of New Jersey (located in Manasquan), and spent about fifteen minutes on the phone with a wonderful employee who conducted a comprehensive search of therapeutic horse-back riding sites in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. She came up with about a half dozen options, one of which will end up hosting Justin this summer. We’ve been out to see it, and although I can’t recommend it because he has not yet attended, the facilities look beautiful, and the instructors could not have been more welcoming.

I see a post “part two” in my future.

I’ll list phone numbers and websites below, and I hope this piece will be informative to any readers with autistic children, or children with other disabilities who reside in central Jersey. Most of this information I happened to stumble upon from other parents who wanted to share their knowledge, and I feel compelled to pass on these opportunities to others. I’ve felt so fortunate in the connections I’ve been able to make for my children, in knowing that the memories they’ve formed from these experiences will reside with them for a lifetime. I wish you best of luck in that endeavor as well.

Here’s to a great summer.

Department of Human Services/Division of Developmental Disabilities

(732) 863-4500 or (609) 588-2727

Camp Bridge

(732) 580-6212

Old Riverside

(732) 458-1135

Family Support Center of New Jersey

(732) 528-8080

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Bayshore Academy of Dance May 30, 2012 at 12:19 PM
Bayshore Academy of Dance in Holmdel offers dance classes for children with special needs. Please call us 732-739-2829 for details. Also, visit our website, www.bayshoredance.com
Christina Johnson May 30, 2012 at 01:23 PM
Thanks for sharing that Leigh! Patch readers, please recommend more summer camps/activities for kids with special needs in our local area.
KS June 07, 2012 at 03:58 PM
Our family had a positive experience with Camp Excel, which is for children with ADD, ADHD and other social skills challenges. Campers meet daily to practice social skills and role play in a small group setting. Campers work daily with a dually-certified PE teacher on motor skills. They also work daily on keeping academic skills sharp with a dually-certified teacher with grade-appropriate peers. Typical summer camp activities include arts & crafts, computers, cooking, nature, etc. Campers swim at Camp Zehnder in Wall. Fridays, campers take a trip to an area attraction, such as Keansburg Water Park (Runaway Rapids), Blackbeard's Cove, etc. Parents get a daily feedback sheet, and there is a reward/incentive system for campers. The camp psychologist meets once weekly with parents in a group setting on topics impacting campers and families, and they provide care for campers & potty-trained siblings. The weekly parent groups with the psychologist are included in the tuition. The camp provides daily transportation to / from camp from sites near parents' homes. The camp is run by Kathy Cable and her 2 daughters. Ms. Cable is a trained social skills therapist with a master's degree, and she also does mini social skills camps on Saturdays during the school year as well. My recollection is that Camp Excel accepts campers age 5 through 16, but campers & parents must interview with Ms. Cable to ensure a good fit. The camp's web site is www.campexcel.com.
Kimberlee Rutan McCafferty June 10, 2012 at 12:17 AM
Thanks for sharing that!

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