How to Choose the Perfect Summer Program for Your Child with Autism

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Summer camps and programs can be transformative experiences for children with autism, offering opportunities for growth, socialization and skill-building. However, selecting the right camp or program requires careful consideration, and parents have a lot to think about when it comes to the options out there. Let’s jump into some of these considerations for Autism Acceptance Month in April.

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Structure & Program
First, consider the type and structure of the program. Day programs provide structured activities similar to school hours, offering a familiar routine that can benefit children with autism. On the other hand, overnight camps offer immersive experiences that foster independence and socialization, although readiness for an overnight experience is something to carefully consider.

Balancing structured activities with free play is crucial for children’s development. Structured learning environments help children hone essential skills like following instructions and participating in group settings, while free play encourages spontaneous interaction and social skills development. It’s a fun and valuable experience for children who would benefit from such a program, and it’s important for families to be aware of the opportunities that will be the best match for their child.

Quality & Inclusion
The quality of staff and their training is paramount. Look for counselors with extensive experience working with children on the autism spectrum and specific training in autism awareness and intervention techniques. Additionally, ensure that staff members are equipped to provide necessary accommodations for your child, such as visual supports and sensory breaks. It’s completely appropriate to ask about the credentials of the counselors who will be with your child all day!

Safety is non-negotiable when choosing a summer program of any kind. Evaluate the program’s facilities and protocols to ensure they meet safety standards and are accessible for children with autism. Consider factors like emergency procedures, staff-to-camper ratios and the presence of trained personnel in crisis intervention techniques.

Inclusion practices are essential for creating a supportive environment. Look for camps and programs that promote inclusivity and provide accommodations for children with disabilities. Talk with the staff about the accommodations available and ensure they align with your child’s needs and abilities.

Insurance & Preparation
Exploring insurance coverage options can help offset the expenses. Some insurance plans may offer coverage for specialized camps or therapeutic services for children with autism. Be sure to talk with your insurance provider about potential coverage for summer program expenses—but do it as early as possible! Many summer programs that take insurance have a limited number of spaces and need to perform an assessment and insurance check months in advance.

Preparing your child for their program is so important for a positive experience. Introduce them to the routines and environment in advance, using visual supports and social stories to help them understand what to expect. Address any anxieties or concerns they may have and involve them in the decision-making process as much as possible.

By prioritizing your child’s needs and preferences and considering these areas above, you can select a summer program or camp that offers a supportive and enriching experience. With proper preparation and support, summertime can be a rewarding opportunity for your child to learn, grow and create lasting memories.

Justine O’Meara is manager of the Social Beginnings program at Verbal Beginnings, which focuses on after-school and summer programs for children on the autism spectrum and serves Washington D.C, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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