Sending kids off to camp is fun and exciting, but as parents we still tend to worry about their well-being. After all, we’re parents…that’s what we do! This is especially true when our children have special needs.
That’s why I’m super excited to share this post written by the fabulous Robyn from Mental Phils to share her experience!
Take it away Robyn!
Last summer, I thought, “Summer’s here and that means another round of college-aged camp counselors that have no clue what Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) is.”
You see, I’ve found they often associate the diagnosis mild Autism with an absence of language or intellect. They also have limited, if any experience in helping children with special needs, and are quick to build resentment and disregard them as a result. Not a good combination.
Another summer of new camp counselors…another group of caregivers that don’t know our family history of the last seven years: the heartache because of Zachary’s diagnosis that includes rigid thinking, problems with his sensory system, perspective taking, social awkwardness, and emotional regulation.
They are unaware of the thousands of hours we have put in since Zachary’s infancy of in and out of home therapy, hundreds of therapists, counselors, teachers, and doctors ensuring Zachary would develop socially and emotionally, just like his typical peers.
Camp counselors do not fully understand the exhaustion, helplessness, isolation, and overall innate fear we have that Zachary’s behaviors will lead to him being ostracized and/or bullied by not only his peers, but by uninformed adults.
I decided this summer I was going to take a more proactive approach by writing a hand written letter to the camp staff, which to my relief was met with respect, appreciation, and results:)!! I am hopeful this letter may be equally useful for other parents, providers, and counselors of special needs children who work with paraprofessionals.
Dear Camp Staff,
Overall, Zachary is a great kid. He is goofy, happy, smart, and active. He is also cooperative and can be very helpful and polite. When you see any of the opposite, Zachary is most likely anxious or uncertain what to do.
He is eager to fit in and be liked, so this motivates him to do well. At the same time, he is still learning social skills. The times you will see Zachary regress will be in new situations, new places, crowds, unexpected events, loud noises, when you grab him without permission, or when he is hungry.
He will show it first through hyperactivity, invading others space (physically), and then it progresses to refusing to participate, blaming, complaining, and eventually crying. Some gentle handholding (not literally) may be needed in the short-term. He definitely does not require an aide or 1:1, but will need some extra support from time to time.
Once Zachary masters the expectations, routines, and new people, he will be at this best and he will thrive with his peers and the staff. Here are some helpful tools in working with Zachary, and by no means is it meant to be digested all at once.
He will be with you all summer, so my hope is in the days and weeks ahead with some practice of the tips, Zachary will be an ideal camper. Encouraging his peers to help him will also be helpful for everyone. In all honesty, most of these therapeutic tips will help all children. So, embrace them for a smooth summer;).
Please feel free to call or text me for anything. It will never be a bother. Thank you in advanced for your genuine care and support of Zachary. Kindly, Robyn 😉
Here are some strategies that are helpful to Zachary:
PROACTIVE STRATEGIES to Help Zachary Be His Best:
– Ensure he has a snack every couple of hours. He is unaware of his hunger cues, and will have a meltdown because he is starving.
– Ensure he eats his lunch. It may help if he is in a less stimulating area to do this, or regular prompting with an activity reward upon completion.
– Only touch him if there is an emergency or please ask his permission first.
– Tell him ahead of time the expectations of the day, along with what he should expect from the events/activities prior to each transition.
– Tell him ahead of time the expectations you have of his behavior (staying in his own bubble, eating when prompted, taking space with staff when stressed, using inside voices…).
– Have Zachary face you during communication so he does not miss body cues, and you both know you understand each other.
– Catch him making good choices with positive feedback like when he initiates contact with peers, is flexible in decision making, problem solves independently, ask for company with his words, uses eye contact, eats his food (to fuel his energy), practices good self-care (calming).
-Let him know that sometimes kids at camp misunderstand intentions and you will help provide reality checks to help him make and keep friends. For example, he may misinterpret an accidental bump into a peer as them intentionally hurting him. Just quietly pull him aside and remind him of your role to give him a reality check. Try to show care/concern/mentorship and he will not get defensive. Encourage him to curiously ask for a reality check from the peer. Prompt him to share his feelings/needs with his peers, “please be aware of my invisible bubble next time.” And, then redirect the conversation to the current activity.
– Remind him he will be splashed at the pool, and ask what his plans are to take care of himself and his friendships so he does not get upset.
REACTIVE STRATEGIES to Help Zachary Be His Best:
– Ask if he is hungry and ready for a snack.
– Get at his eye level and listen to what is bothering him.
– Repeat back what you understand he feels/needs in a calm soft tone.
– Ask him what he wants, and how he will plan to solve the problem
– If he is too distressed to problem solve, let him know it is a good time to take some space. Either accompany him to a quiet area with less stimulation and/or lead him in some deep breathing exercises (smell a flower, blow out a candle). If he believes you genuinely care to help he will take your lead, and take a break from the situation.
– Have him tell you about his Legos, his Minecraft game, his Netflix shows, his pets or friends at school. Have him draw out any of those topics. This will help distract and calm him down.
– Be patient with him. Do not push your agenda on him, unless safety is a concern. Let him try and solve his own problems. He is good at that once he feels validated and has calmed down.
– Lastly, if he is showing rude behaviors, please understand it is either because he is super anxious or is not skilled at perspective taking.
o If it is ANXIETY, help him calm down by walking him through the expectations, reality, and by using the calming techniques (i.e. breathing, blowing bubbles, going on a walk, taking space, drawing).
o If it is Poor Social Skills, kindly invite a practice role place of a more helpful way of getting his needs met. For example, when you see him blaming or complaining about another camper not sharing, ask him or tell him you guys will practice asking the camper to share. Discuss with him what he will do instead if his peer is not cooperative. If he is attention seeking by trying to interrupt you repeatedly, ask if he needs help initiating conversations/ play with his peers. Practice with him asking his peers to hang out and finding common interests.
Thank you again for your support in helping Zachary to have a successful camp experience this summer:):):)
Robyn C. is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of California. She works both at a local hospital in the Department of Mental Health, and has her own private practice specializing in depression and anxiety. In late 2014, she opened her own TPT store where many games and lessons have been inspired and approved by Zachary;) https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Mental-Phils
In thinking about Robyn’s experience, I decided to make a printable for my kids when they go off to camp this summer and thought I would share it with my readers. 🙂 Just click on the pic for your download!
Have you had a similar experience as a parent? Share what you would like care givers to know in the comments below!