We've heard directors say, "He survived." Parents tell us, "She got through it." As camp professionals, we know that we can do better. Often, because they love children so much and because they so strongly believe in the transformative power of camp, many camp directors try to serve campers who are not appropriate for their particular camp setting. Our personal experience in recent years has led us to believe that inclusion is not always the best solution for children with differences. Every child deserves a camp where he feels like he's a vital member of the community and truly accepted for who he is — an environment where he is comfortable and confident because it is thoroughly designed for his specific needs. We don't want to see every camper merely "survive" . . . we want to see all campers thrive!
Inclusion began in our school systems to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to learn. Rather than excluding or removing children with special needs, these children were integrated into the mainstream classroom, with additional supports and accommodations. The idea is that children learn from one another and that acceptance is an important lesson for all children. This is a wonderful system, and in most cases it's an extremely successful academic model. Recently, the inclusion model has expanded to non-classroom settings. When programs are not inclusion-based, people often think they are discriminatory and archaic. We have reason to challenge this conventional wisdom.
We run a camp for children on the autism spectrum. Specifically, most of our campers have a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome (AS) or nonverbal learning difference (NLD). In our camp, we only serve children with these special needs. Our entire community has been designed with the social, emotional, neurological, and educational needs of these campers in mind. Every decision we make about camp is informed by our knowledge of AS and NLD.
Our menu takes into account the fact that many of our campers are "picky eaters" or are on a gluten- and casein-free diet. Our cabins are arranged to give every camper as much personal space as possible. The cabins are outfitted with visual tools to help campers stay informed about upcoming events and to remind them of expectations. Our staff is well-trained and highly motivated to work with this particular group of children and they have backgrounds in fields like psychology, special education, and therapeutic interventions. We have, at most, eight campers in a cabin with four counselors. We do not have "color wars" or late-night surprises because we understand that our campers do not enjoy unexpected or highly competitive events.
We have created a program that enables our campers to have a "traditional" camp experience that does not feel clinical. Although we do not provide direct therapies to our campers at camp, our program is therapeutic. Our program enables our campers to be a part of a community that was specifically designed for them, where the staff and their peers truly understand who they are and the struggles they experience in life. We practice an in vivo approach to social skills development. That is, we are able to give campers immediate and consistent feedback, in real-life social situations. They can play, have fun, and make friends while getting the support they need. This only works because our campers feel comfortable and safe in our community. Most of our campers attend public school, and they have to work extremely hard every moment of every day to fit in to these mainstream environments. They have to conform to the expectations of adults and peers who do not really understand their needs. Because our campers feel at ease at camp, they are more receptive to our staff's feedback and feel more successful. As a result, they return home to their mainstream settings more confident and independent, with memories of their achievements at camp to help them better handle the school year.
The Challenges of Inclusion
Of course, we believe that every camp director wants these same outcomes for their campers and that they will do their best to help each camper reach them. However, we question whether every single camp is equally equipped to provide the same level of success for every single camper. Strategies such as providing a one-to-one counselor, modifying a camper's schedule, or adjusting staff training — while admirable and appropriate under the circumstances — are not adequate substitutes for helping the camper find her place in a community in which she is the exact right fit. When our focus is to "do our best" to create accommodations and "make camp work" for a child with special needs, are we really delivering the same level of life-changing, transformative, and positive growth experience for her as we are for the other campers? What we've learned from the families of our campers is that, in too many cases, the answer is no.
Our campers do not have visible disabilities; they pretty much "blend in" to the general population . . . to a point. Certain situations and stressors quite dramatically reveal them as different. Most "typical" camps that we know are rife with those aforementioned situations. When greeted by boisterous cheering, invited into loud and chaotic buildings, asked to unpack for themselves and remember where they put their toothbrush, included in competitive activities, required to eat certain foods, bunked with twelve other campers and only three counselors, and generally expected to "go with the flow," these kids stick out like a sore thumb. And to make matters worse: In the very act of making adjustments to accommodate their needs, camps are often further marking these children as different. The end result is that they don't really feel that they're among peers. Ultimately, this social isolation, however subtle, manifestly alters their camp experience and leads us to question whether camps — even the best camps with the best intentions — can meet the needs of campers with certain special needs.
Empowered and Independent
Our hope is that every child has an opportunity to experience the ultimate camp experience, where he or she feels empowered and independent, gains self-confidence, and makes life-long friendships. In order for that experience to take place, children must first feel that they belong — they must feel that they are wanted and understood. When we ask children to fit into a program not designed for them, minor adjustments aside, we are not setting them up for success. We're setting them up to feel different. Summer camp is often described as a "utopia" where things are different from the "real world." For many campers with special needs, truly thriving at camp means being in a community that's designed for them and where they can be themselves. They have the rest of the year (and the rest of their lives!) to fit into the real world; summer camp can be their utopia.
Authors' Note: The content of this article does not constitute legal advice. The authors run a private, for-profit camp that, like private schools, has clearly articulated acceptance criteria. Other organizations, particularly those that take public funds, have dif ferent challenges, constraints, and expectations.
Eric Sasson has nearly thirty years of camp experience. He earned a BA in Math from Haverford College and a Master's in Education from Harvard University. Outside of the camp world, he has extensive experience working with children and young adults i n a variety of settings.
Debbie Sasson has been spending her summers at camp for more than twenty-five years. She has a BA in Psychology and a Masters in School Counseling from University of Rochester, and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Yeshiva University. In addition to camp, her work in the field has primarily focused on individual counseling for children, adolescents and families.
Debbie and Eric met at a summer camp and have each held virtually every job available at camp, from bunk counselor and swim instructor to unit head and camp director. They now operate Camp Akeela in Thetford Center, Vermont, where they create an empowering community for boys and girls who thrive in a traditional camp setting with a little extra social support. Contact the authors at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.