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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Summer Camp? Not for Many Children on the Autism Spectrum

By Heidi Underwood & Bob Underwood — April 17, 2016 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is co-written by Heidi and Bob Underwood of Kattskill Bay, NY. The Underwoods, both teachers, are founders of Under The Woods Foundation.

As summer approaches, parents start to look at the myriad of opportunities for summer camps and enrichment for their children. The opportunities seem endless with sports camps, summer enrichment, social camps, sleep away camps, etc. What if your child is on the Autism spectrum and can’t attend these camps because of their needs? The reality is that many camps don’t enroll children on the Autism spectrum because they aren’t sure how to work with them.

Parents of special needs students and kids on the Autism spectrum know this dilemma all too well. While their other typically developing children head off to summer camp these children have few if any opportunities. And it hurts the children and their parents.

Parents and their children on the Autism spectrum are incredibly isolated by the lack of opportunities in their community. Many times these activities are a key to transitioning a child into a more social environment over time. Parents struggle with bringing their children to large events for fear of outbreaks of behavior and lack of understanding of the people around them. Many times it is just easier to keep their child home rather than see the reaction of people who do not understand the autistic child.

Parents also have real concerns if their child will be safe and properly supervised at these camps. A large number of these students have difficulty communicating their needs and require special communication accommodations. Many of the children have a very real anxiety of change and need a schedule and prompts to help them transition between activities. Parents worry about their child’s ability to communicate their needs as well as the staff’s ability to understand and meet those needs.

Camps can provide respite for children and their parents...

Parents need time for themselves as well. Many parents of children need a time of respite to recharge for the remainder of the day. As parents of children not on the spectrum we seldom think of how isolating having a child on the spectrum can be. We take for granted the time we spend sitting at a game talking with other parents of relaxing while our kids are at camp. Parents of children with special needs require time to simply sit and talk and not have the responsibility of being on guard at all times while with their children. Just that hour or two of time to sit and be an adult, read a book, relax, can be a great help to these parents.

What Can We Do As Educators?
A camp designed for children on the Autism spectrum where parents and children alike understand the challenges is what these families were asking for. These families needed a place where children would be able to experience camp and not be held back due to their behaviors or communication challenges. Parents need a safe environment for their children with trained staff who can facilitate a true camp experience for their children.

That was the impetus to start a summer camp for children primarily on the Autism spectrum. My wife, Heidi, who works with young children with autism, came to this idea after talking with a family about the lack of opportunities for their children. Heidi had many discussions with a parent of a young child severely impacted by Autism. The mother spoke of how difficult it was to find activities for her child. She expressed the wish to have her child experience all the things that other children get to experience in a summer camp.

Out of this idea was born the idea of “Under the Woods Foundation.” Summer camp should not be just for some children but every child not matter what types of abilities they have. Many of these children have needs to socialize and be with their peers and a summer camp is just the place to do this. We felt we could tailor a camp to meet all the needs of campers who were on the autism spectrum and provide them with the same opportunities as their typically developing peers.

Children on the spectrum have a special sort of needs that have to be understood and accounted for when developing and training a staff. We first had to find a camp setting and were lucky enough to be able to rent a local Girl Scout camp for our sessions. We sought to have trained professionals as group leaders for each group and hired trained staff experienced with this population to work the camp. With staffing of nearly 1 to 1 we sought out volunteers to work with each group. Many of our volunteers came from our local High school students and community members. This proved to be a great learning experience as well as gaining knowledge of what “autism” is really like. All the volunteers come away with a new found appreciation of the unique abilities of the children and are touched by the experience.

Our main goal was to build an experience that was unlike the school programs that many of the children are involved in all year long. To build a true summer camp where each camper can go at their own pace and just have fun and experience the outdoors. We chose a camp in the woods with trails, and several lodges for indoor activities and a huge outdoor area for outdoor play and activities. Activities include: arts and crafts, a sensory room, outdoor play, splash pad, group meetings and songs, as well as outings off site.

We started small with younger children ages 3-10. Many of these children quickly aged out and once again at age 11 they had nowhere to go for summer camp. We quickly settled on 2 different camps, ages 3-8 (Camp Under the Woods) and 9-14 (Camp Summer Social). The younger camp centered on play and activities but we found the older children wanted and needed more.

Older Campers Can Do More
When we started the camp for the older age group we wanted to work on social skills and developing friendships at camp. We wanted to give them some opportunities outside of camp that they might not get a chance to experience. We also wanted to challenge the kids to get them outside of their comfort zone, to try new things that they and their parents never thought they could do. We took the big step to take the group White water rafting on a nearby river.

We really did not know what to expect and were surprised by the turnout of both campers and their parents. What a great experience, to see these kids having a great time on the river and being able to participate with their parents. We have expanded the experiences to not only include rafting but now a high ropes course. To have a child on the spectrum climbing 30 feet off the ground in the trees and then swinging out like a squirrel is something we never thought possible. The campers loved it and we do too.

Having a child on the spectrum does not have to limit their opportunities or activities. Many of these children are willing and ready to experience things that we as parents and educators do not think possible. We as educators need to seek out and create meaningful and safe environments for these children. The rewards for the children, community, and your staff are endless.

To learn how you can help Bob and Heidi, click here.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.