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Summer Special-Needs Planning Guide

Five options for passing the time productively


Summer vacation -- we look forward to it as a break from homework, and dread it as a break from routine. Two-plus months of unstructured time is an unsettling prospect for children with special needs and their parents, but it's not always easy to find an appropriate option for passing that time. With a little planning, you can make one of the following five options work for your youngster and your family, depending on how much trust you have in others, how much work you want to do, and how much your kid will let you set the agenda.

Summer Option #1: Summer Camp

The Painted Turtle Camp
Photo by Giulio Marcocchi/Getty Images
The classic way for children to pass a summer is by going to camp, whether a day camp in the community or a sleep-away camp somewhere within bus distance. For children with special needs, the camping situation can be a little more complicated. There are special-needs camps that cater to particular disabilities and maybe calm parents' fears a little bit about their special little one getting safe and proper treatment, but they tend to be pricey and fill up fast. Community camps are cheaper and more widely available, but they may not be willing or able to accommodate your child's special needs, and even if they want to try you may worry about whether your child will be safe and happy there. To consider all the angles of a camp experience for your child, read "Choosing the Right Summer Camp for a Child With Special Needs," "Locate a Special-Needs Summer Camp," "Assemble a Camp Information Packet," and "Ten Ways to Prevent Camp Tragedies."

Summer Option #2: Do-It-Yourself Day Camp

Camp Mom Logo
Image by Terri Mauro
Can't get comfortable about sending your child to camp? Bring the camp to you. Camp Mom is a do-it-yourself day-camp experience you put together with carefully selected friends and friends' parents. It gives your child the socialization experience of summer camp, helps you bond with your child while also having some socialization time yourself with other adults, and provides a framework for all those other things you want your child to do over the summer like keep up on schoolwork, pursue some therapy activities, and get outside and play. It's also a heck of a lot of work. I've done some of it for you with a step-by-step tutorial, complete with planning forms, and a day-by-day review of my Camp Mom summer.

Summer Option #3: Extended School Year

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
If you're lucky, your school may offer your child services over the summer, and those services will be worth the time and trouble. Extended School Year is an option that should be discussed during your child's IEP meeting, where it will be determined whether he or she will lose enough ground over idle summer months to warrant keeping the program going when school is otherwise out. ESY can be a great experience for a child with special needs, extending therapy and education and keeping up with much-needed routine. Or it can be a disaster, with kids bused out of district to work with unfamiliar therapists and swelter in hot rooms with a mismatched batch of classmates. Be sure to ask what ESY will entail, where it will be, and who will be doing it before committing your child to it, and check up once those services are being delivered just as you would do during the school year. Don't like what's being offered, or can't get the school to agree your child needs it? As with summer camp, you can always create your own.

Summer Option #4: Job Program

Photo by Terri Mauro
For teens with special needs, a summer job program is a productive and lucrative way to pass the summer. Though your young person may not be able to grab a typical summer job at a fast-food restaurant or mall store like his peers without disabilities, talk to your high-school transition coordinator about whether there's a program in your area that works with local businesses to place special-needs students in subsidized employment. In the county where my family lives, a jobs program places kids ages 16-22 in day-care centers, boy's and girl's clubs, hospitals, and schools for five or six weeks of minimum-wage work. It's been a good way to build up their work experience, resumes, and bank accounts. Job coaches are provided as needed, and there are situations with higher and lower degrees of supervision. If you have a teen with an idle summer ahead, it's worth checking if your county, state or city offers something similar.

Summer Option #5: Set a Goal

Copyright (c) 2007 by Terri Mauro
Some kids thrive on a heavily structured summer, but others enjoy the freedom of not having to do anything much. Still, it's nice to look back on a summer and see that something's been accomplished. One way to give a summer some shape without structuring it up is to set a goal or a family project and spend a little time each day pursuing it. You might use the summer to get started with a reading routine. Vow to take a walk every day. Do a park tour, in which you visit every park in your vicinity and compare their playgrounds. Go room by room through your house, de-cluttering as a family. Pick a skill to master, like memorizing math facts or tying shoes. Have your child write a journal or start a blog. Pick something your child is motivated to try, or that you can turn into an opportunity for togetherness, and don't be too ambitious. Two months of nagging is nobody's idea of a fun way to spend the summer.

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