Picking the right summer camp is complicated enough for most parents, but it can be especially challenging for parents of a special needs child.

Even though there are more things to consider, a special needs parent should consider exposing their child to the camp experience because it can go a long way in fostering independence.

"All parents want their kids to become independent," says Mark Claypool, President and CEO of Educational Services of America (ESA). "They don't want their kid to be so dependent on one or two adults, that they can't function without them. No parent wants to feel that their forty-year old child can't go on after they die. That's why it is so important to do anything they can to foster independence and help their child learn how to build relationships outside the family."

Claypool's organization is a leading provider of K-12 and post-secondary alternative and special education programs. Based in Nashville, Tenn., ESA operates schools and programs in 17 states and services 7,000 students.

Claypool firmly believes that every student can and will succeed given the right kind of instruction. Summer camp can enhance that success if it provides the child with the right kind of nuturing environment. He offers the following tips for special needs parents who are thinking about summer camp:

· Don't make it all or nothing – Sending a special needs child to camp should be done on an incremental basis. The first year the child should be sent to day camp for two weeks. The next year, the parent can increase the length of camp time if the child had a positive experience the year before. If all goes well, the following year the parent can consider an overnight camp.

· Choose a camp with good supervision – "These kids need more supervision than kids that aren't disabled," Claypool explained. "A parent should select a camp that puts kids in defined groups with line-of-sight supervision. Being in a group is also therapeutic because it keeps the kids engaged and requires them to interact."

· Check for a program with guided activities – The camp should offer facilitated social skills training as well as guided activities to improve social skills. There should be less emphasis on competitive activities, and more emphasis on team building.

· Play to the child's strengths – "These kids tend to be very good at certain things," Claypool noted. "You want to select a camp that will offer activities that are within your child's strength areas."

· Know who's going to supervise your child – Checking the credentials of the people who will be in charge of your children is extremely important because, as Claypool explains, you don't want novices responsible for kids with the complexities that special needs kids have. Be sure the camp staff is experienced with this type of population.

· Check group demographics – As Claypool points out, "Anyone who is savvy about special needs knows that these kids need to be grouped by cognitive level rather than by age." If kids are grouped strictly by age, there is the possibility of higher functioning kids bullying and teasing lower functioning ones.

There are, as many special needs camps, as there are special needs. Here are just a few:

www.ramapoanchorage.org

Ramapo Anchorage Camp

Rheinbeck, NY

Children with emotional disabilities, autism, and attention deficit disorders

Tel: (845) 876-8403

www.doublehranch.org

Double ‘H' Hole in the Woods Ranch

Lake Luzerne, NY

Children with chronic illnesses

Tel: (518) 696-5676

www.childrensaidsociety.org

Wagon Road Camp

Chappaqua, NY

Children with physical and developmental disabilities

Tel: (914) 238-4761

There are several web sites that allow you to search for a camp based on your child's condition:

www.campchannel.com/campers/browse/special_needs-cc.shtml

www.mysummercamps.com/camps/Special_Needs_Camps/index.html

www.campresource.com/camps/spec_needs_camps.cfm

Keep in mind that no matter which camp you choose, the activities won't be much different that a regular summer camp. There should a good mix of sports, arts and crafts, and even a bit of academics.

The important difference with a special needs camp is that there is an experienced staff that can deal with inappropriate behavior and maintain an environment that is both physically and emotionally safe for your child.

This article was reviewed by Dr. Manny Alvarez.