Open The Door

Most camps with a focus on social and emotional development embrace the idea of inclusivity and diversity. However, if our camps mean to serve with integrity, that inclusivity of special needs populations requires a lot of thoughtful preparation. Each special need is labeled “special” because accommodations are necessary to allow equal participation with peers. So where does a camp begin in opening its doors to a wider range of children?

A number of areas need to be addressed, and camp administrators must decide whether they are willing to make changes to their programs for the sake of these new campers. In some cases, administrators may decide that a new program takes them too far from their mission, their core clients, or their budget, and that is a much better decision than trying to serve campers for whom they are unprepared.

There are many types of special needs, including physical, medical, clinical, and developmental. This article puts the focus on developmental special needs, including learning disabilities, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and various other developmental delays. As these diagnoses have become more prevalent, many camps have attempted to serve these children. With thoughtful planning, success is possible for many of them.

In a nutshell, these disorders are neurodevelopmental delays, which means these children are behind their peers (delayed) in some of their brain development, and in many ways may act younger than their chronological age. They are usually less socially adept. Their executive functioning skills are less advanced, resulting in more difficulty with problem-solving, task completion, and making good decisions. Many of these children also have slower processing speeds and require more time to take in information and to respond. This can affect their ability to transition between activities. Those with autism may also be very sensitive to certain things, like loud noises, bright lights, and certain textures.

To successfully integrate these special needs campers into a program, consider the following areas:

Staff Ratio

Typical camps have a 2:10 or 2:12 ratio in the cabin, and can have one instructor with a group of similar size during the day. These new campers require more prompting and mentoring; many camps have ended up assigning a 1-on-1 staff member, so that the group can stay on task. Add an extra staff member to a group, or reduce the ratio altogether.

Staff Training

All staff members who may interact with the new campers need some understanding of the differences and how they can be accommodated, and must be on board with the mission. This includes kitchen and maintenance employees as well as nurses. Otherwise, frustration will abound on all sides.


Those in charge of registering campers need to know the boundaries of whom they serve to avoid disappointment and a negative experience. They should also know what accommodations the camp will and will not make. If special needs campers are limited to one per group, or per session, that should be made clear to the gatekeepers.


Here are some special accommodations to provide (this is not a comprehensive list):

  • Physical—Campers may be less-coordinated than peers; give assistance or more time to master a skill.
  • Written—Posted schedules, rules, and steps to complete a task (like doing a chore) are very helpful. Many kids benefit from visual reminders.
  • Pre-processing—Discuss upcoming activities, including requirements (jeans, water bottle. etc.), what to expect, length of time, and a choice of participation. This will reduce anxiety.
  • Transitions—Some campers may benefit from a buddy who makes sure they get from place to place. Some will go more willingly if given 5-minute and 1-minute warnings about the change.
  • Downtime—People who are working hard at fitting in all day need more breaks than others.
  • Extra time—Allow extra time for campers to process directions, and to respond or comply. Ask them to repeat what was said, to be sure they truly understand.
  • Social-skill coaching—When campers are struggling socially, they may not understand various norms or nuances. An objective discussion can be a great learning experience if campers feel supported rather than singled out.


Take a close look at the camp’s culture.  If a camp is competitive by nature, or holds high standards for skill achievement, it may not be the best place for a special needs camper. The ideal tone for a camper who struggles socially is one of acceptance and cooperation, where the quirky kid fits in as easily as the high achiever or charismatic one. Special needs children are often rejected or made to feel as if they stand out in a crowd; they need a place where they feel they belong.

Consider other programming elements that will help them succeed:

  • Encouragement—If campers are used to failure, they may avoid further risks, and need extra encouragement to try new things. Teaching all campers empathy will help with this as well.
  • Teamwork—Focus on group accomplishments and cooperation over competition. This helps build positive social experiences and possible friendships. Many special needs campers have black-and-white views of success and failure, and are not good losers.
  • Clear instructions—Be specific and consistent in setting rules, boundaries, and procedures. Posted reminders are helpful. Ask campers to repeat instructions to be sure they understand.
  • Structure and consistency—Most of the time each day should be scheduled and predictable. Unexpected changes can throw off campers who need time to transition.
  • Goals and contracts—Give campers something to work toward. If there is a problem, write a contract together, outlining the best approach for the next time.


There are a few extra considerations for campers with sensory-integration disorders or autism:

  • Light (especially fluorescent)
  • Loud noise (like the camp bell, horn, or PA system)
  • Touch (high fives, hugs, games)
  • Food textures (very picky eaters!)
  • Clothing textures (wearing the same clothes every day)
  • Dirt or water (some abhor dirt while others avoid showers at all costs)
  • Specific fears (bugs, lightning, pirates—yes, really!)
  • Special interests (Legos, Minecraft, Magic cards, Pokemon)

Know The Limits

Any camp that chooses to move forward in serving campers with neurodevelopmental disorders should hire or contract with a specialist who can provide much deeper insight and training. It is also critical to define the limits of what can and cannot be accommodated and the number of campers who can be served well without disrupting what is unique about the camp.

Some campers are not best served in a traditional camp, and it is a mistake to try to serve everyone. There are many special needs camps serving specific populations and that are designed to help kids build skills so one day they may come to a regular camp. In the end, it is about providing a growth experience for every child, in whatever setting.

Linda Tatsapaugh is the Operations Director/Owner of Talisman Programs in Zirconia, N.C. Reach her at



Camp Basics

Name: Talisman Programs

Location: Zirconia, N.C. (western N.C.)

Student to Instructor Ratio: 8:3

Cost:  2 weeks $2,995, 3 weeks $4,370

Ages: Coed Ages 6 – 22; Also Talisman Semesters for boys 12-17

Talisman specializes in ADHD, Aspergers Syndrome, and autism