Sleepaway camp has been a big part of my boys’ summers for years. Our two older boys had amazing camp experiences and when Jonah was born I just assumed he would go too. After he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, I was still determined that Jonah would go to camp, even if I wasn’t entirely sure how we would make that happen. My ultimate goal as a mother is to ensure my boys grow up to be independent, self-sufficient and, most importantly, not end up living in my basement as adults.
I’m not going to lie. The idea of having a few summer days of grown-up alone time with ZERO children, is also a great motivator.
Camp is a great training ground for future independence and for Jonah to get there, he needs to be integrated with his “neuro-normal” peers. The camp for us is Hockey Opportunity Camp, a physical activity-oriented camp in Muskoka. Our older boys had been going there for years, and we are close friends with the owners who were very excited to welcome Jonah when he was old enough.
Despite all the excitement and enthusiasm though, I was conflicted. Jonah was excited at the chance to go to sleepaway camp like his big brothers. Yet, despite how much I wanted him to have an inclusive experience at a “regular” camp, the very thought of my baby going somewhere without staff trained in ASD – who could support him and help him navigate the social scene – made me VERY nervous.
REACH’s process, from the intensive intake to the training of the camp staff and Jonah’s counsellor, did wonders to ease our nerves, and served as a basis for Jonah’s first camp experience. So now that REACH had the camp preparation and training covered, how were we going to get Jonah ready for his camp experience?
We always start from the position of “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” One thing we’ve learned about Jonah and ASD is that unpredictability is the order of the day. So, we try to prepare for ANYTHING and EVERYTHING so that Jonah has the best chance to be successful. Here’s how we prepared Jonah (and us) for his first time at sleep away camp:
“Yet, despite how much I wanted him to have an inclusive experience at a “regular” camp, the very thought of my baby going somewhere without staff trained in ASD – who could support him and help him navigate the social scene – made me VERY nervous.”
Pick the right camp. We were very lucky that we already had the perfect camp as part of our family tradition. HOC is heavily oriented to physical activity and Jonah is an active and sports loving boy. The idea of him being tired out by a day of archery, cycling, swimming, and camp games like roof ball, was a big selling point. Also, Jonah was exactly the right age to take advantage of HOC’s “Tyke Program”, which offered younger, first-time campers the option to stay just three nights instead of an entire week. I’m sure this is as much for the benefit of anxious parents as it is for easing young kids into the camp experience.
Don’t hold back during the intake process. I’ve been there. You hold back some stuff during an intake process because you’re worried a program won’t take your kid. That is not what REACH is about. REACH does a more thorough intake than any other program we have been involved in and there is good reason: the staff and volunteers at camp need to know my kid inside and out – the good, the bad and the ugly – so they have the tools and strategies needed to really understand how to create and maintain an inclusive experience. The camp knew, in detail, what Jonah’s daily routines looked like – from getting up, to what he wouldn’t eat (pretty much everything), to bathroom routines (keep an eye out for the pee dance), to what could trigger anxiety or a meltdown (sudden routine change, loud sudden cheers), to what his stimming looks like; the list went on. So when Jonah struggled, his counsellor and the staff knew exactly how to support him so he could cope, recover, continue, and succeed.
Take a test drive. An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of peace of mind. Many sleepover camps have an Open House. Go to it. Even if the camp is hours away from where you live, make an adventure out of it. We booked our spot at the HOC Open House and the staff arranged for Jonah’s dedicated counsellor to be there to greet us and give us a tour of the camp. Even though Jonah had been there when dropping off and picking up his brothers, this experience was now about him. Jonah was able to see where he was going to sleep (“A bunk bed! In a cabin!”), check out all the cool areas of the camp, try out some activities (paddle boarding is a work in progress) and, most importantly, make a connection with his counsellor. When we arrived on drop-off day, Jonah had a familiar face greet him which eased a lot of anxiety. If the camp doesn’t offer an Open House or there is no way for you to go, ask the Camp Director to send pictures of the camp and counsellors so you can create a social story.
Let your child pack for camp. Jonah was an active participant in packing his camp bin. We guided him through his clothing selection (“pick out four pairs of shorts”), walked him through his toiletries (mini shampoos, soaps, etc.), talked him through the importance of sunscreen and bug repellent and helped with selection of comfort items (“three stuffies will be more than enough.”) However, If you only take one thing from this post let it be this: LABEL EVERYTHING.
Be anxious. It’s okay. I admit I was a pretty big talker about Jonah going to camp. But, when going to camp became a reality, I was a mess. Would he sleep? Would he make friends? Was I setting him up to be traumatized for life? For three days, everything would be out of my control. I was going to have to trust that the process worked and the camp staff could handle everything. Much easier said than done. I was a wreck after drop-off and didn’t sleep the first night, jumping every time my phone rang or buzzed. Then, the first text came through: “Jonah had a great night! He made a new friend!” Then another text, and another, all sharing something awesome Jonah had experienced that day. Talk to your Camp Director about keeping you posted on how your child is doing through a daily text or email. Those little communications not only brought a HUGE sense of relief, they put a big smile on my face every day (and maybe caused a tear or two).
You are KIDLESS! Take advantage!! One of the biggest benefits of having kids at sleepover camp is grown-up time!! If you are lucky enough to have no kids at home while your child is at camp, take advantage of it. My husband and I used our time sans kids to spend some much-needed couple time at a friend’s cottage (which happened to be only an hour from the camp – see point above about anxiety). We were able to recharge and reconnect over a relaxing three days with no obligations. If you aren’t completely kidless, maybe you can spend some quality time with your other children. Either way, don’t squander the opportunity.
Jonah hit it out of the park with his first camp experience and needless to say I was the proudest Mom on the planet. This summer, he will be back at HOC for an entire week. The best thing about inclusive camp experiences is that those days and weeks bring so much to so many people. For the camp and staff, it’s an opportunity to provide an incredible experience and make a real difference to a kid who needs a little extra help. For my husband and me, it’s a chance to get away and spend quality time together, knowing that Jonah is in capable and caring hands. Most importantly, Jonah gets to have a truly inclusive experience with his peers where his differences are just that – differences – and not something less… and “sleep in a cabin, in the top bunk!”
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