How to prepare for school camp

How do you prepare for school camp if your child has autism? Do you go on camp at all? “I want to go to a high school that doesn’t have camps” said our son, when choosing high schools. That’s a sign of how daunting, anxiety-inducing and challenging independence on camp is.

Consider the impact on autism or ADHD on children. A child with ADHD will have executive functioning, on average, of someone 30% younger – if a child is aged 10, their organisation, time management and emotion regulation is like that of a 7 year old. A child with autism will have their own profile – maybe they’re low in muscle tone, coordination or self-management skills, and have a delay of several years in these skills compared to their peers.

What’s wrong with school camp?

We recently prepared for a 4 day, 3 night camp that our son went on with school. It was a 4 hour drive away, so there was no rescuing him with a late night pick up if he couldn’t sleep. Considering his diagnosis, this is probably like sending a 7 year old away for a week without a parent. One of our questions was – do we even send our child on school camp? Will the outcomes be positive or more negative?

He was very reluctant to attend camp, and anxious about, well, everything. He said he was worried about the:

  • food, and if there would be any food he would like. He worried that he wouldn’t like the food that was prepared by someone else. He also worried about picking out the bits he didn’t lie and how long that would take. He worried about going hungry for most of the week.
  • sleeping and not having his comfortable bed and routine. He doesn’t like top bunks, finds sleeping bags too slippery and noisy, and often wakes in the middle of the night needing the toilet.
  • activities on camp. Camps are fast paced and you have to participate in activities that are often outside your comfort zone or that will get you wet, muddy and dirty. There’s often a lack of alone time and quiet time for regulation.
  • weather, and being too cold during the day and night.
  • self-care situation, including toileting and showering. He’s not confident in self-care and worried about having enough time in the day for cleaning and toileting. He also dislikes showers because water gets in your eyes.

How to prepare for school camp

There are so many things outside of their control when going on school camp. If you’re not good with being flexible and going with the flow, camp can be a nightmare. And let’s be honest, autistic kids can have fixed thinking and rigid routines that don’t fit with camp ideals. So how can you prepare autistic kids for school camp?

Get as much information as possible from school

You can’t prepare if you don’t know. Ask the school for as much information as possible, including:

  • accommodation details so you can look up photos and visualise the sleeping and eating arrangements.
  • the week’s menu so you can prepare for the types of food being offered.
  • the schedule of activities so you can help plan out the day and when there’s time to do self-care activities and rest.

Practice at home

You will need to practice at home leading up to the camp. Make sure you know several weeks in advance or longer so you can build ‘camp skills’. Practice building independence in things like:

  • sleeping in the sleeping bag overnight – get used to the weight, the restriction, the warmth/lack of, the slippery slide and the zipper
  • stuffing the sleeping bag back into the carry bag
  • eating any new foods that might be on the camp menu, or practicing ‘fixing’ food that’s mixed on a plate and removing non-preferred foods
  • zipping up a suitcase and packing clothes in
  • having a shower independently, including turning on taps to get the right water temperature, cleaning and drying off
  • cleaning up any accidents with wet wipes and wrapping up dirty clothes in plastic bags
  • brushing teeth, hair, dressing independently, including selecting clothes from a suitcase
  • sitting in a bus for an extended time for travel to the camp

Stay in contact

Stay in contact with school or the supervising teacher on camp. Offer your mobile number in case your child gets stuck and needs support. Communicate any worries or concerns with the school in advance, and suggest strategies that might work e.g. timed toileting reminders or being excused from some activities in the afternoon for quiet regulation time instead. Be the advocate that your child needs to make the experience as positive as possible.

Sometimes the camp may welcome menu suggestions, so let them know if there are particular foods your child eats and favours. See if you can get a smaller dorm with less people, and pack lots of spare clothes just in case!

Conclusion on preparing for school camp

So, our son survived school camp. Here’s the report:

We communicated with school and said he might need to opt out of some activities in order to have down-time or to regulate. He used this twice – on the first day they went body boarding and he didn’t feel like getting wet and was tired from the travel there, so her sat and read his book instead. Teachers were supportive of this as an option because we had set it up in advance.

We got one phone call after the first night. He hadn’t slept much, and was in tears. Letting school know that we were contactable during the camp meant they felt free to call. We were able to coach him through the morning routine, relieve some home sickness, and give encouragement for the day.

Apparently the food sucked. Providing a secret supply of snacks, and practicing ‘fixing’ food at home helped. He could ‘fix’ the meal by removing items he didn’t like to the side or adding sauces to change the taste so he didn’t go hungry, even if the food wasn’t his first preference.

Also, he didn’t shower once during the whole camp. He said there wasn’t time to. We now know to prepare for school camp by practicing showering more at home, and to weave it into a morning or bedtime routine as part of getting ready. Just because there isn’t ‘shower time’ written on the schedule, there will be time before breakfast at 8am to fit it in!

We needed two days after camp to recover. He was tired, cranky and got upset at the slightest thing due to his tiredness. Planning for a quiet weekend to recover at home after camp was an important action.

He got to do activities that he wouldn’t normally do, like kayaking and mountain biking. This helped his self confidence lots, but there’s still no place like home!

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