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Camps for Kids With Special Needs

Tips and camp options to ensure a great experience

Published on: February 01, 2019

happy kids at camp

When I hugged my 6-year-old daughter goodbye on day two at day camp — knowing day one had not gone well — I hoped prepping the staff again would be enough. I’d spent the early morning hours talking her through ways to make camp bearable and extolling the camp’s merits. But the 10 a.m. phone call from a parent volunteer who discovered my child sitting alone and sobbing inconsolably beneath a tree revealed that I had failed at a very essential aspect of camp preparedness as a parent of a child with special needs: finding a camp that was capable of meeting my daughter’s specific needs. 

 “The thing about finding camps for a special-needs kid is that every kid is completely different,” says Laura Stone, a West Seattle mom with a child who is on the spectrum. Her son has enjoyed attending Blue Compass Camp, which is specifically staffed and structured for kids with autism, Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD. She has also signed her son up for local camps that aren’t tailored for kids with special needs. But for these camps to work well for him, she says, the providers must be made aware of his unique needs in order to be able to adjust and adapt to them effectively.

Amy Hallmon, a West Seattle parent of five kids with special needs, concurs that clear communication with camp staff before day one is vital.

“It’s not overkill to provide specific examples of potential behaviors and how you would deal with them — in writing as well as verbally, and more than once,” says Hallmon. “[During camp week] speak up if you see or hear something that doesn’t work. One of our kids needs an ‘escape spot’ when she becomes overwhelmed, and she can’t talk about it once she’s upset. For every camp activity, she needs a designated, safe calm-down spot — and to not be asked any questions.”

Hallmon says it took several attempts to convey the concept to camp staff last summer, but her determined communication paid off, setting the foundation for an ultimately fulfilling experience for her daughter.

When it comes to facilitating a memorable summer camp adventure for children and teens with a range of special needs, the camps below are dedicated to understanding what will make the experience successful for each participant. But that informed understanding and preplanning for a safe and satisfying camp stay begin with you, the one who knows your child best. For more recommendations, check out Seattle Children’s searchable directory of camps for kids with special needs.

Camp Korey

Camp basics: This camp, which serves campers with serious medical conditions, recently relocated to a beautiful 200-acre property in Mount Vernon that features lodges, a garden, ball fields and a dining hall. On-staff medical personnel support campers as they participate in a wide range of adaptive recreational activities, including boating, archery, cycling, performing arts, outdoor education, and arts and crafts. While some camps target specific types of medical needs, Camp Korey’s general sessions serve kids with a variety of life-altering medical conditions.

Ages: 7–16.

Day or overnight camp: Overnight summer camps, family weekends throughout the year and day events.

Cost: Free.

Camp Patterson

Camp basics: Run by the City of Everett, Camp Patterson invites all campers, particularly those with developmental delays and physical challenges, to explore Silver Lake. This summer day camp experience includes swimming, kayaking, field trips, music, and arts and crafts. Through these activities, the day camp seeks to promote a positive self-image and teamwork among campers. Weekly camp sessions run from July through early August.

Ages: 5–21.

Day or overnight camp: Day camp.

Cost: $125 per week with extended care available for an additional fee.

Outdoors for All

Camp basics: This fittingly named nonprofit foundation’s day camps ensure that youth of all abilities participate in outdoor sports and recreation. Campers try a range of sports, such as kayaking, rock climbing, cycling and swimming. In addition to athletic endeavors, campers partake in field trips to local zoos, parks, aquariums and other community excursions. Themed Outdoors for All camps are held at three locations, including Seattle’s Magnuson Park and Lake Sammamish State Park (with a third location to be announced on its website).

Ages: 5–17.

Day or overnight camp: Day camp.

Cost: $435 per week.

Aspiring Youth Summer Camp

Camp basics: Aspiring Youth welcomes all campers who would benefit from small-group settings and social skills support, including those with a diagnosis of autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, learning disabilities or other similar traits. Pick from age-based traditional day camps or theme-based camps with choices that include video production, habitat restoration and art. With incredible enrichment activities as a foundation, Aspiring Youth’s master’s level counselors help campers build confidence and connect to new friends. The camper to counselor ratio is 4:1. Camps take place Monday–Thursday, 9:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., in Redmond, Seattle and Bellevue, with before- and after-care options; sessions are also offered in South Seattle and West Seattle during select weeks.

Ages: 8–18.

Day or overnight camp: Day camp.

Cost: $550 per week.

happy kids at playgarden
Fun at a PlayGarden camp

Seattle Children’s PlayGarden

Camp basics: Campers enjoy an urban oasis of gardens at Seattle Children’s PlayGarden, located in South Seattle. This fully inclusive, nature-based summer camp experience is designed for kids with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Participants have fun with art, science and almost anything they can dream up. Campers dig around in the gardens, meet chickens and rabbits, climb into the tree fort and play on a playground designed for people of all abilities. Camp runs four days a week and has themes like “Garden Explorers” and “Green Thumbs.”

Ages: 3.5–18 years.

Day or overnight camp: Day camp.

Cost: Sliding scale of $375–$500 per week of camp; financial aid available.

Blue Compass Camps

Camp basics: These guided adventure camps are focused on building social skills and self-confidence in children and teens, including those with Asperger’s, ADHD and high-functioning autism. The camper to counselor ratio is 3:1. Programs are designed to assist campers to utilize interpersonal skills and social interaction tools, and demonstrate to them that they can overcome physical, social and confidence issues to exceed their own expectations. Blue Compass’s motto: “Find your comfort zone and step one inch further into doubt, worry and possibly anxious moments and prove to yourself that you are stronger than you thought.” Campers participate in a wide range of outdoor experiences at overnight camps in several locations in the Puget Sound area. Activities are dependent on the camp, but may include horseback riding, kayaking, backpacking, rock climbing, high ropes courses, and arts and crafts. 

Ages: 10–18.

Day or overnight camp: Overnight camp.

Cost: From $795 to $2,450.

Metro Parks Tacoma Camps

Camp basics: Metro Parks Tacoma offers three different recreational day camps. Camp Kaleidoscope (ages 8–14) and Camp Wonderlots (ages 15–21) provide opportunities for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities to have fun, be active, make crafts and socialize with friends. Pastimes for these two camps include games, crafts, tie-dyeing, adventures at the spray park, STAR Center indoor Treetops playground, easy cooking activities and some sports. Designed for campers with physical disabilities, Camp Adapt to Achieve (ages 5–10 and 11–16) camps are inclusive and open to siblings without disabilities; activities include an introduction to Paralympic sports like wheelchair basketball, goalball, sitting volleyball and archery, along with arts and crafts, games, cooking and outings.

Ages: 5–21.

Day or overnight camp: Day camp.

Cost: $130 per session; scholarships are available.

Camp Stand By Me

Camp basics: Easterseals Washington serves children and adults with disabilities at its barrier-free summer camp and respite service on the Key Peninsula. At Camp Stand By Me, children and adults of all ability levels partake in a traditional overnight summer camp experience, right down to eating s’mores around an evening campfire. The camp’s fully accessible and adaptive environment (with a 1:1 or 1:2 care ratio and an on-site nurse 24/7) enables campers to enjoy camp activities, such as swimming, canoeing and archery. Camp Stand By Me also offers a long-weekend family camp and weekend respite camps during the school year.

Ages: 7–21.

Day or overnight camp: Overnight camp and weekend respite camp.

Cost: $1,085–$1,385 per week for summer camps; $405 for weekend respites.  

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