Preparing Children with Special Needs for Camp

Will he be homesick? Will she make friends? Will they remember to put on bug spray?

Sending your child off to camp for the first time is a nerve wracking parenting milestone, and for families of children with special needs, these concerns come on top of basic questions about safety, accessibility and trust.

Fortunately, central Indiana is home to several camps that specialize in welcoming children with an array of physical, emotional and behavioral challenges.

“You have to reach out to those families and reassure them that this is a safe, secure place for their kiddos,” says Angie Hilligoss, Manager of Respite Programs at Easter Seals Crossroads, which hosts an overnight camp at Bradford Woods in Martinsville. “When the parents feel safe and secure and they have that connection with that camp, their kids feed off of that.”

Local camp directors offer these tips to help parents and children have a good first camp experience:

Be forthcoming with camp staff

Be sure to share as much information as you can about your child when talking with camp employees, including concerns over meltdowns or aggressive behavior. The more they know, the more prepared they can be.

Tim Nowak, Program Director at Jameson Camp on Indianapolis’ far-west side, encourages parents to call and talk directly to camp staff about their child’s needs. “It’s important for the parents to be completely forthright and open in sharing their child’s circumstances. It will help us understand the child’s struggles and how they shine,” he says. “When I see a lot of detailed information come in, as a director, I’m not scared of that. That means we have a really prepared parent.”

It’s also helpful if camp staff know what supports a child uses at home or at school, like a reward system or penny board, so they can have those ready to go when a child arrives.

Be detailed with your child

It’s often the little things – such as what the beds look like, where the bathrooms are and how to turn on the showers – that cause the most pre-camp stress for kids. Parents can help ease their concerns by providing as much detail as possible.

For Easter Seals’ Camp ROCKS, a 5-night, 6-day outdoor camp experience for children 10 to 18 with autism, each family receives a detailed information packet to help prepare. “It has a daily schedule and pictures of everything – this is the cabin you’re going to stay in, these are the horses that you will ride,” Hilligoss says. “It’s the little things, it really is.”

Taking your child to see the camp before the first day can also help them to get their bearings. Many camps offer open houses before camp or are available to tour ahead of time. “It can be really helpful for the child to be involved in a tour of the camp so they can really look at the camp and understand what happens there,” Nowak says. “Do it earlier, instead of just a week before camp. That way, the child has more time to become comfortable with the idea of camp.”

Be flexible

Most importantly, remember that being away from home with new kids and new adults is a big step for any child, particularly those with special needs. Try to be flexible as you help your child with the transition and look for creative solutions to curb their anxiety.

“At Camp ROCKS, we had a kiddo who loved his fishing pole, and he wanted to bring his own, which actually worked out really well,” Hilligoss recalls. “We used it as a reward for good behavior and he learned more about it and how it could be used.”

A camp experience can be the highlight of a child’s summer. By researching the best camp opportunity for your child, and preparing in advance for the experience, summer camp could be an event your son or daughter looks forward to every year.


Spots at camps that start later in the summer may still be available. Browse Indy’s Child listings at

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