Why I Send My Son With Autism to Jewish Summer Camp
Life has been relatively calm the last few days. A major reason for that is that Ted - my son, who has autism - is off at camp for 3 ½ weeks. No, it is not a "special needs camp." In fact, he attends URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, the same Reform Jewish camp I attended as a child. This is his sixth summer there, and we love it.
I get a lot of questions, like "How can you send him for so long?" "Don't you miss him?" "Doesn't he get homesick?"
Here are a few answers.
I send Ted to camp for so long because that is the session the camp offers, and it is important to me that he attend, develop relationships with others, learn to be independent, and know he will be OK if I am not there. It's important to me that he be forced to make choices for himself, grow both personally and spiritually, and learn to make it in a typical environment.
Yes, I miss him a lot, and yes, he gets homesick. A few years ago, I got a letter that simply said, "Dear Mom: I have stayed at camp too long. That is all I have to say. Love, Ted." Still, I know this is a great opportunity for him, and I know he is safe and that the camp staff will call me if there are any problems. I also know that it is OK – perfectly normal, even – to be a little homesick. Kids, especially kids with autism, sometimes require a little push and tough love in order to make the next step to being able to live in the world independently, and it is my belief that this is a skill he gains in leaps and bounds at camp.
Our family has been beyond fortunate that the director and staff of the camp have worked with us to accommodate Ted's needs. They assign extra staff when needed, often giving him a one-on-one shadow but also allowing him the opportunity to be on his own whenever possible. They treat him just like other campers while allowing him to have the support he needs to be successful. For example, they provide opportunities for him to make his own choices and explore new activities he would otherwise not have access to – but he is allowed to step away from loud or overwhelming activities. The camp has provided great feedback each year to help us make our decision about sending him the next year. It has been a trial-and-error process, but now the camp staff and returning campers know Ted, and he knows them. Each summer when he arrives, it is like a homecoming.
So yes, it is difficult for us because we miss him, and yes, sometimes he does get homesick – but as we see it, the benefits are worth it. With Ted at camp, my husband and I get some respite and time to reconnect. If you are a parent – whether you child has a disability or not – you know how important that can be. It strengthens and recharges our marriage, and it makes us better parents in the long run. Plus, Ted enjoys camps. He loves the activities, has become close with other campers (including cousins who live in another state), and truly has fun. Why wouldn’t we push him? Why should life be made simple for him? As neurotypical people, we face challenges and become stronger by learning to overcome them. That’s how life works – and at camp, Ted is learning the same thing in a safe and nurturing environment.
Hooray for camp!