Eye on Summer

Eye Planning for a special needs child's sunny season.

Now that the warm weather has arrived, soon school will be letting out and children will be enjoying summer camp and after camp activities, such as art, music and sports. Parents involved in the daily scheduling and chauffeuring of kids to all the many programs may complain about it. If this sounds familiar, you likely don’t realize how fortunate you are that there is such an abundance of summer programs to choose from to enhance the lives of your kids. Some people in the community are parents of children with special needs, who are unable to participate in some or any of the programs that your kids frequent.

For the parent of a child with special needs, the challenge of finding an appropriate summer camp can be overwhelming. In 2007, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that one out of 150 8 year olds in this country was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The ratio was much higher for boys. In October 2009, researchers updated that statistic to reflect that one child out of every 91 children will be diagnosed with ASD. New York State’s Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (OMRDD) shows there are 280,000 people in the state who have been diagnosed with mental retardation, 24,000 with cerebral palsy and another 34,000 with other neurological impairments, excluding epilepsy. What this all indicates is there are many people who aren’t able to participate in typical summer recreational programs that others can easily find.

For a small number of younger children, the school district may include six weeks of an extended school year or summer program in order to help the child from loosing already mastered skills. The likelihood of these programs for school-age kids and older is greatly reduced. What about local camps where the average day is spent going from one activity to another, usually with campers moving as a group to different athletic fields and activities? You know, the types of camps where kids talk and laugh as they move from perhaps tennis to the pool. For the parent of a child with special needs, that scene is terrifying. Some of the common areas of conflict for children with developmental delays, attention deficit disorders, language processing or semantic disorders, and social and/or emotional delays include difficulty with transitions, being in large groups, lack of structure and increased levels of noise or stimulation— just to name a few. In other words, the areas of difficulty and what happens in a typical camp are pretty much the same.

How do parents with kids who have special needs find appropriate summer programs? By doing a lot of research, talking with other parents and interviewing camp directors. There are some resources available to help narrow the search. One is the book Resources for Children with Special Needs: Camps 2010 (Resources for Children with Special Needs). Another is a Web site, www.mysummercamps.com, where visitors can explore different summer programs by state (followed by more options) or by type, such as Special Needs Camps. Parentguidenews.com has a similar feature, enabling users to click on the Special Needs tab atop the site (followed by the Schools, Programs & Camps link) to access the summer programs catering to kids with special needs in a particular county or even town.

For a comprehensive list of camps for children with autism spectrum disorder, contact Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) at (914)761-0600, ext.228, and ask for the WJCS Autism Family Center Camp Listing 2010.

As the special education and services director at the JCC of Mid-Westchester, I along with the JCC staff have developed programs for small groups. These include self-contained classes for children ages 3 to 5 and inclusion programs for children ages 5 to 12. The programs have special education trained staff as well as college-age and older group leaders.

Most parents of children with special needs have a common goal to help their child to play and socialize appropriately with the child’s peers. As a result, many social skills groups have sprouted up in Westchester. It is recommended to first contact your local community centers— including YM/YWCAs and Jewish Community Centers— to find social skills groups or therapeutic recreational programs for kids with special needs. One of the most thoroughly compiled lists of programs in the tri-state area comes via the WJCS Autism Family Center. To obtain the list, e-mail afc@wjcs.com. You might want to know, all of the above facilities provide non-sectarian programs.

Even though it sounds like there are numerous summer programs for kids with special needs, the demand far exceeds the supply. There are many more activities available in the lower and middle parts of Westchester than there are in the upper portion of the county. Programs for adolescents and young adults with special needs are some of the hardest to find.

Additional activities for people with disabilities that are available in the Westchester area include art therapy, music therapy, speech pragmatics groups to help a child learn to have a conversation, yoga and programs using horseback riding. Because parents want to give their child the same kind of experiences as a typically developing child, there has been a push for different kinds of sports programs, as well. Many are familiar with the Special Olympics. Find out about such sports programs through your Special Education PTA group (www.wepr-pta.org) or through the South East Consortium (www.secrec.org). Whatever program your family chooses, may it be a bright summer ahead.