For Kids With Special Needs, Summer Camp Isn't Out of Reach

Photo: Camps that cater to kids with special needs offer typical camp activities with a twist. Camp directors say these kids never feel like outsiders because of their disease or disability.

For millions of kids each summer, camp is a chance to cut loose, meet new friends and hone new skills in the great outdoors.

But for children with special needs, whether it's a physical disability or a developmental disorder, traditional summer camps can pose a whole host of challenges.

"Summer camp is just part of Americana, and if you've got children with particular special needs it's just very difficult for them to readily fit into a mainstream setting," said Sean Nienow, the director of the National Camp Association.

"Camps are set up with a lot of physical activity and are not set up to cater special needs. They're set up to play soccer or have kids go on a mile hike," said Nienow.

One boy at the Adventure Amputee Camp spoke for all the special needs campers when he was asked what he liked best about camp: "No one is staring, asking what's wrong with you or criticizing your faults."

It's because most summer camps aren't set up for kids with disabilities that camps designed specifically for children with special needs have begun to crop up all over the country.

According to Peg Smith, the chief executive officer of the American Camp Association, 17 percent of all accredited summer camps provide programs for kids with special needs, a number that has grown by about 4.4 percent since 2001.

"The world today recognizes that kids need to be kids first, regardless of illnesses or special needs," said Smith. "It only makes sense that the camp experience, if it's truly designed for young people, is accessible to all kids, regardless of their disabilities."

Smith told that special needs camps run the gamut in terms of the types of disabilities they focus on, and said that she's seen everything from camps for kids with HIV to programs for homeless children.

"I don't see any disability or challenge that is not being represented out there," said Smith. took a closer look at a few camps that won't let any disability stand in the way of a child's summertime fun.


Children ages 7 to 17 who have been diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome can meet other campers with similar physical and auditory tics at Camp Twitch and Shout.

Located one hour outside Atlanta, the camp's first summer was a big hit, according to Brad Cohen, the camp co-director, who said the camp attracted 50 campers and more than 35 staff members from across the United States.

"So many of our kids have never met another person with Tourette's before coming to camp," said Cohen, who was diagnosed with the disorder when he was 10. "So they see that they're not alone, and that there are other people going through what they are going through."

During the one-week-long overnight camp, Camp Twitch and Shout campers can try their hands at archery, swimming and more, said Cohen. The cost for a week of camp is $250, but Cohen hopes that donations and fundraising will lower the price in the future dramatically, if not eliminate it entirely.

"We want our kids to have positive experiences, make new friends, gain independence and the self-confidence that they need so when they go home and they have that tough day when kids are bullying them, we want them to look back on their camp experience and say, 'I can do it,'" said Cohen.

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