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By Judy Loseff Lavin, M.S.W.
Author of Special Kids Need Special Parents

Did you know that more than 2 million of the 10 million American children attending camp each summer have some sort of special need? According to the Indiana-based American Camping Association, it’s true. And, even more surprising, those numbers are growing.

During the last 10 years, there’s been a 70 percent increase in the number of specialty camps catering to kids with extra issues, says Peg Smith, executive director of the association. “People used to assume that camps were just for those who could afford them. Today, there’s a camp for each child out there, and parents should shop for a program (that suits their child.).”

But, when you’re deciding on a summer program for your child, there are some things you’ll want to check out. First, interview the camp’s director to get a feeling about how the camp will accommodate your child’s needs. Make sure the director values flexibility for kids with special abilities and is willing to work with you and your child to help make the summer successful. “They have to be willing to try different things—to get to ‘yes,’” said Andy Fernandez, inclusion supervisor for the City of Reno Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services in Nevada. You also have to make sure that there are enough well-trained counselors for each camper. “We staff our camps at about a 1-3 ratio,” said John McGovern, executive director at the Northern Suburban Special Recreation Assn, Northbrook, Il.

You’ll also want to check out the number of hours the child will be at camp. Not all kids do well if they are away for long periods of time. And, of course, you want to be sure that there is a nurse and a social worker on the site to help your son or daughter if necessary.

Once you’ve selected a program, don’t think your job is over: you’ll want to start planning. Contact the camp director—either when you register your child or at least, 2 weeks before camp begins—to share information with him or her about your child. “The hardest thing for us to do, is to try to figure everything out, the day the child arrives,” Fernandez said. Share insights about your son or daughter with the director to help him or her better understand and accommodate your child. You want the summer experience to be positive.

All in all, camping can be a wonderful experience for children with special needs. “I love camp because of the friendships the kids make,” said Judy Jacobs, (identity changed) from Deerfield-, Il., who’s 8-year-old son is autistic and has attended Apachi Day Camp in Northbrook, Il. for the past three years. “The best thing is when you walk into camp and the counselor says hello to your child. That relationship happened on it’s own—it’s great.”

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Judith Lavin, M.S.W., author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin speaks to numerous organizations and parent groups around the nation, giving them inspiration and hope.

Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent. In addition, she has appeared  on radio and TV news and talk shows around the U.S., including NBC-TV's Today show, PBS-TV's Small Talk for Parents and the CBS Radio Networks. You can visit Judy at