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Jul 8 2014

Five Reasons I’m Sending My Son With Autism to Sleepaway Camp

By at 11:11 am

jana-special-needs-camp

Typical parents are rarely surprised when I tell them Benjamin goes to sleepaway camp–at least not after I clarify that it’s a camp catering specifically to children with special needs.

“It’s really structured,” I’ll explain. “Lots of staff members have special ed degrees and work in the field during the year, and there’s a really high counselor-to-camper ratio.”

While the special ed speak convinces most people (or bores them into believing) that I know exactly what I’m talking about, there is one population I’m not fooling: fellow autism parents. 

When I break the news to one of them that we’re shipping our minimally verbal, highly anxious, almost 11-year-old off to camp in another state, I generally get a mouth wide open stare that broadcasts his or her questions, including, but not limited to: How will he fall asleep at night in a strange place with a strange bedtime routine? What happens when he wakes up at 2:30 a.m. for the day? What will he do with no iPad? How will they know what he means/wants/needs? How will you know if he’s miserable? How can you trust the counselors?

I do not find this judge-y. I get it. Our kids, many of whom (like Benjamin) can’t tell us when they’re sad, scared, lonely, or hurt, are extremely vulnerable. Many of our kids have anxiety, aggressive behaviors, and a dangerous habit of running away. They depend on people who understand and love them–namely us, plus maybe a family member or a trusted therapist or two–to do so many things for them. And we depend on constant contact–in the form of face-to-face meetings and home notes–for a clear picture of what happens during the hours they spend away from us at school.

So, yes, sending Benjamin to camp again (this will be his second summer) is terrifying. But here’s what I tell people when they want to know why we do it anyway:

1. Did I mention the highly qualified staff and great staff-to-camper ratio? They run a tight ship over there–one with visual schedules, behavior plans, and trained, patient professionals.

2. Benjamin is always up for outdoor activities, and camp has plenty of that. Ropes courses! Boating! Swimming! Hiking! All the stuff most kids love about camp (unless you’re like me, who hated sports and the icky lake and prayed for rainy days filled with endless Spit games, but Benjamin, thank goodness, is not like me).

3. There might be a time when Benjamin does not live with us, and I don’t want his first time being away from home to happen in his 20s. This is good practice.

4. While I’m sensitive to Benjamin’s need for familiar routines, it’s also important (says his therapists) to change things up. Busting him out of his environment will help him learn to be more flexible.

5. We get a break. That might sound mean and awful, but parents who send their typical kids to sleepaway camp say it all the time, so I guess it’s fine if we do, too.

Now there’s just one person who still isn’t convinced camp is a crazy idea: me. But I’m getting there.

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