The Right Fit–The Search For A Successful Summer Camp
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The Right Fit–The Search For A Successful Summer Camp

Last summer, Jodi Holper Singer wrote about the challenges of finding camp for her autistic son. One year later, she happily writes about a camp experience that worked great.

The author's family. Courtesy of Jodi Holper Singer
The author's family. Courtesy of Jodi Holper Singer

What a difference a year makes. Last August, I wrote the blog, The Paradox of Summer, describing our difficulty over the years finding the right camp for Ryan. The blog was then published here and a number of people, including a Rabbi in Israel, reached out to me after that with camp suggestions. I was very appreciative for all the advice but knew those camps would not suit Ryan. However, the messages got me thinking that it had been six years since we’d given up on camps and maybe there were new options now available.

I began my search in February. We only needed something for a few weeks, since the first five weeks of summer Ryan participates in the Extended School Year (ESY) program at the high school and we usually go away at the end of August. I googled camps in the Philadelphia area for special needs teens and stumbled upon Carousel Farm in Warminster, PA. Their summer program was for teens and young adults ages 14-21 with learning disabilities and mild autism spectrum disorders. I emailed them and got in touch with D, who worked in the office. He said the camp day is split between typical camp activities, such as sports, swimming, art, music, and horseback riding, and employment skills, where campers can work in the camp store, on the farm (with sheep, goats, chickens, a donkey, and a pony), in food services, or in the garden. There is a big focus on social skills throughout the day, and the majority of the campers are verbal and mostly independent.

It sounded amazing and we went to visit in early April. I learned D’s parents. L and M, owned Carousel Farm. L was the main counselor, M was the music counselor, and they have a daughter who runs an overnight camp for young adults over 18. The camp was small enough where Ryan would not be overwhelmed but seemed to have enough activities to keep him busy. We saw an indoor video game area, a mini zip line, the farm, the horseback riding and sports areas, and the pool. As an added bonus, we learned the camp offered hot lunches. (For some reason, my kids do not like sandwiches so that has always been a challenge with camps.)

Like with anything new, Ryan was hesitant to commit to going there. “I’ll do it for one week,” he said reluctantly.

“Three,” I countered. “One will not get you used to camp and I’d rather you spend time there than sit on the couch indoors.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll do 2.” I smiled. Two weeks was my actual goal, and so we had a deal.

Ryan and I went to visit camp the Friday before he would start so he could meet his counselors and the other campers. L was warm and welcoming and we were part of their morning meeting within minutes of arriving. They were working on social skills and the kids had to talk about their weekend plans and ask each other questions. The room was loud and Ryan looked a little overwhelmed. But surprisingly, he did answer questions people asked him and asked L a few questions of his own.

L gave us a copy of the schedule, which helped Ryan relax immensely now that he knew when each activity would happen. We then had the chance to meet his driver, who was also the horseback riding instructor. She showed Ryan the van he would be in during his rides to camp, which also helped get him in the right frame of mind, as transportation to and from school is a big source of anxiety for Ryan. (He likes to know well in advance what bus he’s on, who is driving it, and when it will arrive.)

Despite the successful visit, Ryan being Ryan complained the entire weekend leading up to camp. “I don’t want to go.” “How ‘bout I just stay home and relax.”

“You’ll love it,” we kept saying. “It’s going to be so much fun.” (But I silently prayed it would be a good experience for RyanI knew there was no way he would go to camp after this if it didn’t work out.)

Monday came. I wondered all day how Ryan was doing. When he arrived home at 4:30, I asked a lot of questions, trying unsuccessfully to get details. Here’s what I got out of him: “It was good.” “The ride home was too long.” “I did art.”

I emailed L for more info. “He is just adorable! He had a great time. We adore him. He participates in everything. He’s a doll.”

Wow! I told Ryan how much L and the others liked him and asked again what he did. He said he worked in the garden and swam and complained about the long ride again. I suggested he bring earbuds to listen to music during future car rides.

The next day he did just that and did not complain about the ride. He told me he worked at the farm and enjoyed it. Wednesday, he had the chance to ride the horse. Swimming was his favorite overall activity, and he was not happy the one day it rained and swim was cancelled.

Ryan asked me if I knew the schedule for next week. I emailed L, who said it would stay the same and she added that he seemed to like the kids in his group. “He has settled in beautifully and goes with the flow,” she said.

I showed that to Dan, and we both laughed about how she probably got Ryan confused with another camper. Go with the flow is not a phrase that comes to mind when we describe Ryan.

Over the weekend, Ryan said, “Only five more days of camp and then I can relax!”

“Ry! You like camp. And everyone loves you.” I said.

He smiled. “Well, at least I have three weeks after camp ends to relax.”

L told me to keep an eye on their Facebook page as there were some cute photos of Ryan going up soon. The pictures went up on Monday of the second week. The very first one was a close up of Ryan, and there were six more of him included in the post. My favorite was Ryan feeding a goat. He looked so happy.

Week 2 was all about the weather and Ryan’s concern that the rain would impact swim time.

“Mommy, when will the rain start?” he asked each night. “And when will it stop?” If he didn’t like the one weather site that had the hour by hour forecast, he had me pull up another.

“I don’t want it to rain during camp tomorrow. Tell the rain to wait until camp’s over,” he complained. Some things never change – see Weathering the Storm. Luckily the rain cooperated with Ryan’s schedule.

When his driver dropped him off on Friday, she called out to me, “Ryan told me he’s coming back next summer for two weeks. Looking forward to seeing him then!” I couldn’t believe Ryan had independently told people he would return.

We started the camp search when Ryan was six and after nine years, we finally found the right fit – activities he will willingly do, and most importantly, counselors and a few peers who got to know him and with whom he made connections. As Ryan looks forward to relaxing the next few weeks before school starts, I am thrilled to have a place where he can comfortably return next summer.

Editor’s Note: Jodi’s blog originally appeared here.

Jodi Singer, is a global marketing & sales director for a professional services firm. She lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with her husband of 20 years and 15 year old twin boys, one of whom has autism. She’s been the captain of the Autism Speaks team, “Team Inspiration,” since 2010. In her ‘spare’ time, Jodi enjoys creative writing, musical theater, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

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