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How to Re-Think Summer when Special Needs Programs are Limited

Jamie Sumner
Special needs mom, author and blogger
06/01/20  5:00 AM PST

My son, Charlie, attended the best camp of his life last year. He is eight and has cerebral palsy. Because he uses a wheelchair and also a communication device, I was hesitant to even look into summer camp. But he loves public school and being around friends and so I knew summer would be a long drought of social activity that I couldn’t fill, as much as I’d like to as his mom.

So, I did what any good parent would do – I researched the heck out of it and found a day camp through our local Parks and Recreation center that served kids with special needs. I quizzed fellow parents whose children had attended. They had nothing but positive things to say about it. I called the director and asked her my list of questions: What’s the ratio of kids to adults? What kind of training do the group leaders go through to prepare them for a mix of abilities? What outings will you take and what transportation will you use?

She was more than reassuring and so I summoned all the trust I could find and signed him up for six weeks of day camp. During this time, he went on field trips to the local pool, had visits from karate instructors and zoo keepers, ate lunch and played on the playground with his peers. One day, as I was pulling away from the elementary school where the camp took place, a kid-sized train even showed up ringing its bell and ready to take the kids for a ride. It was the best summer of his life, and mine, because I knew his needs were being met in ways I couldn’t.

And now here we are, in the coronavirus shutdown, and the camp that I had bookmarked in my calendar for a year is canceled. The thing that felt like the golden ticket to helping him get over the sadness of leaving his friends at the end of school is over before it started. We’re not the only ones in this boat. Summer services provided by the public school system are also canceled. Therapy clinics are continuing with online telehealth visits instead of meeting in person. Zoos and libraries and aquariums and parks are closed. What does this mean? We are left to provide stimulating activities for our children at a time we had not anticipated.

Here are a few things that we’re trying out:

  1. Outdoor therapy

Though the pools might re-open this summer, we still don’t feel comfortable entering such a public, crowded space. Charlie is used to private aquatic therapy, which of course isn’t happening right now. Luckily, we have a friend with a pool. We trust this friend to have been responsibility self-quarantining and so we will do our own version of aquatic therapy there. It gets us outside. It gets Charlie in the water even if it isn’t exactly how his PT would do it. The same goes for practicing in his gait trainer, using his therapeutic tricycle, and all the other things he would do in therapy or at camp. We’re taking it all outside.

  1. Virtual Outings

Can’t go to the zoo? Explore.org has a variety of sites where you can view wildlife live. Bald eagles in Iowa, gorillas in the Congo, sharks in the aquarium, flying foxes in Florida – they’re all there for the watching.

  1. Zoom with Friends

This has been one of our favorite activities of late. We’ve been zooming with Charlie’s classmates or leaving FaceTime video messages. If you have a child with limited speech like mine, I’ve found he’s more stimulated to engage in and work on his language skills over video. Something about the novelty of it has encouraged him to use his voice and his speaking device. We do a simple “Show and Tell” activity so he has some structure to the calls and they can swap stories.

  1. Read Books Online

The public libraries may be closed, but the books are still accessible! Check your local library for online services and consider apps like FarFaria where your child can read or have books read to them while they listen and follow along.

  1. Practice Self-Care

This summer isn’t going to look like any summer we’ve experienced. The routine you have carefully established over the years isn’t available. You’re going to get tired, irritated, stressed, angry, sad (basically all the things) more quickly. Because of this, caring for yourself should be as much of a priority as caring for your child. Carve out time for yourself to go for a walk, eat a meal in quiet, sleep an extra fifteen minutes, watch a mindless show, use a meditation app like Headspace. None of this is earth-shattering, but it provides a brief respite and re-set for your mind and body.

However your summer is shaping up, please remember that this is only a season, literally and figuratively. We can get through this. Give yourself grace to be the best caregiver you can be in these extraordinary circumstances and let the rest go.

special needs parents

Jamie Sumner is a special needs mom, author and blogger.

Discover her new book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood.

Read her blog, The Mom Gene.

Follow her on Facebook.


Explore more articles on Shield HealthCare’s Community site:  www.shieldhealthcare.com/community



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