Summer Camp for Kids on the Spectrum: It’s About Social Communication.

Connections. Friends. Flexibility. Self-worth. This is what parents tell us they truly want for their kids on the autism spectrum. To make a friend, roll with changes in the schedule, share an experience or achieve something new.


How do we find this? How do we help our kids on the spectrum who are talkative and interactive, but also disconnected and inflexible? While enormously important, the school-year routine of therapies, social skills groups and monitored play dates only goes so far. “Not another therapy appointment!” your kid ends up saying. What your child is missing are the natural social experiences where kids learn by doing, and a skilled adult professional is right there to help them along. Not for a 50-minute session, but 24 hours a day.


After many years working with children we have concluded that the best place to provide this is summer camp. Wading into a lake, singing around a campfire, reading in the tree house – these experiences are endlessly fun, but also provide the opportunity for kids to push a little outside their comfort zone, learn new skills and grow through small course corrections and guidance from a caring adult counselor.


Kids with autism, social communication challenges or non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD) want to connect with others, but they don’t know how or are too anxious to try. They may have learned in a school social skills session that they should shake someone’s hand when being introduced, or look them in the eye, but where they struggle is being able to think about others, to place themselves in someone else’s shoes, or to consider the experience of the person on the receiving end of their conversation. Neuroscientists call this “Theory of Mind,” and the best way to develop in this area is to have real, live social interactions, with a trained guide nearby who can nudge, review and strategize with each bump on the road. Beyond a social group, what kids need is a social learning environment.


At a sleep away camp that is intentionally designed to provide this framework, kids have the opportunity to grow and mature in ways that are not possible in their regular lives. They have cabin mates, are asked to follow a program, and encounter numerous natural opportunities, such as learning to canoe with a partner or cleaning up the cabin, to learn to work with others. All of this can occur under the trained eyes of an engaging counselor who points out social strategies and helps a child reflect on their experiences.


Very few summer camps have been created with these goals in mind. Look for one that has a trained, professional staff that seeks to know each child and help them thrive. As challenging as it may be to send a child off to summer camp, the experience in the right place can be transformative and give a child a community to which they return year after year and draw ongoing strength and friendships from.