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What Summer Looks Like for a Child with Special Needs

Photo by Luis Cruz

Posted in ChicagoNow, July 21, 2014

Ethan is in full-blown refusal mode. He has realized that his “summer camp” is really a version of school, minus his familiar teachers and peers. Not much playtime or recess, even on beautiful 80-degree days. Sofia, on the other hand, is struggling at a summer camp with lots of play but no consistent schedule. Even with a dedicated aide, she can’t get into the rhythm of a program that is different every day.

Both Ethan and Sofia have moms who need to work as well as two other siblings. Both are acting out at home this summer, having massive tantrums and refusing to do activities they enjoyed during the school year. Both kids are really unhappy campers.

So what is the answer? Parents of children with special needs find summer an endurance contest that tests their patience and taxes their children’s ability to cope. We know that kids with special needs have, well, special needs. Three months of unstructured summer vacation are a disaster for children who thrive on consistency and need special educational support year-round.

Summer school seems like an ideal solution except for the following: It is too short and usually inconsistent in its staffing and location. In our community’s public-school system, it consists of 16 half-days. The children are assigned to a random building, often with teachers and aides who don’t know them. By the time they adjust (if they do), it is over. And what is a parent to do with the 16 afternoons and the other unfilled days of summer vacation?

It’s no surprise many turn to summer camp to provide that anchor their child needs, but here’s the rub: As kids get older, the options are fewer. Their peers are going to overnight camps or can be left on their own. Finding a day camp that is affordable, provides an aide, and is structured enough is a real challenge.

This is by no means blaming the summer schools or camps. In the limited time they have, the summer school special education teachers and aides do their best to teach complicated kids they don’t know all that well. By the time they figure out Ethan’s learning style and personality, the program will be over.

Summer camp directors who are open to including children with special needs try to find aides to enable these kids to participate. Most of their campers crave lots of field trips to pools, beaches, zoos, roller rinks, museums, bowling alleys, etc. Just not kids like Sofia. For her, this whirlwind of activity is confusing and unsettling. What was supposed to be a fun summer has became torture for her and the camp staff.

Unfortunately, solutions are few while obstacles abound. It makes no economic sense to keep every school open in the summer so the children with special needs can attend classes in their regular schools. There is also not enough money to pay the special education staff a year-round salary. And many staff members may not want to work in the summer, as their kids are not in school. So what to do.

One idea is to offer a school-hours summer program for most of June, July, and August on a for-fee, sliding scale basis. This program would have to be offered at a conveniently located (air-conditioned if possible) school with a handicap accessible playground (if there is one). Mornings could be spent doing class work, while afternoons could be more camp-like. That might have made Ethan less resistant to going and have provided Sofia the structure she craves.

In the absence of any program that meets their needs, Ethan and Sofia and their families soldier on with summer “vacation.” Unfortunately, both kids recently dropped out of the programs that, for different reasons, were making them stormy and unhappy. Both are now at loose ends as their parents struggle to make new plans to fill their days with productive activities.

July is National Parks and Recreation month, but not all are celebrating. I’m sure all of the Ethans and Sofias and their parents will welcome the day when the school doors reopen. For them and their families, the lazy, hazy days of summer are anything but.


by Laurie Levy
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