Blog Entry dated 5/27/2009 11:39 PM

Summer Options: ESY? Camp? Intensive Therapy? or Just Hanging Out?

Parents frequently ask me to make recommendations about summer programming for their children with special needs. They are torn between using the season for intensifying therapy programs or giving the child a break from routine.

Any child who has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is eligible for an Extended School Year (ESY) program. First, "critical life skills" are identified in the IEP. Next, a committee determines that, without ESY services, critical life skills: 1) will regress and not be recovered in a reasonable amount of time; 2) are emerging and at a breakthrough point; or 3) are impeded by stereotypic, ritualistic or self-injurious behaviors.

If an interruption in programming is likely to prevent a student from receiving some benefit from the educational program during the regular school year, the school system must provide ESY services. IEP goals for ESY are carried over from annual goals; no new goals are added.

My experience is that ESY services sound better than they are. The services tend not to be intensive or remedial, but to fulfill an obligation. Often we can find better ways for children with developmental delays to pass the summer months.

For the child in a self-contained class, summer can be an opportunity to try some inclusion with typical peers. Integrating children with special needs with non-handicapped peers has been proven to be beneficial for both groups. Sometimes a "shadow" from a local graduate school in education, psychology or occupational therapy is necessary for success. Typical children learn about autism, attention deficits and cognitive differences, while those with delays have a chance to practice social interactions, language and physical skills.

Many "special" camps are now available, both as day camps and for a week or two overnight. In the Washington, DC area the GMS Institute has camps that focus on children with sensory integration (SI) dysfunction. One includes typical siblings of children with autism, attention deficits and emotional problems. Both are staffed by occupational therapists and OT undergraduates. Each day, children are involved in activities that stimulate and normalize touch, movement, listening and visual skills. Swimming lessons help children gain confidence and provide the opportunity for movement without the demands of resisting gravity. Some have friends for the first time and are deliriously happy with the nutritious sensory diet they get heavy work, finger painting and the martial arts.

If a child meets ESY criteria, it is remotely possible that a school system will fund a private camp in the same way that it funds private school. Getting this service could require going to due process, however.

Summer can be a great time to intensify or schedule therapy that is hard to fit in during the school year. I would recommend this for older children, especially. If you need to travel to a practitioner in a distant city, combine the trip with a visit to a theme park or camping out. Increase vision or reflex integration therapy to several times a week. Do home therapy exercises in the fresh air. Enroll a child in FastForWord, Earobics or a Lindamood-Bell program. Find a tutor who understands sensory processing and incorporates movement into her sessions.

Vacations with children with special needs can be trying. One family I know was investigated for child abuse at a hotel in Disneyworld because their child with autism screamed all night. Don’t expect your child to hop on a roller coaster and love it. But the unpredictable does happen. With a great deal of vestibular stimulation from ride after ride, one child I know of spoke his first words.

Trips to theme and national parks are opportunities for families to be together, bond and enjoy nature. Fortunately, many parks have tried to make it easier by issuing special passes to avoid long lines and other perks. Use the park’s web site or call before you go.

Remember to keep up the routines as well as proven sensory and nutritional diets that you know your child thrives on. Just "hanging out" can be hard on everyone. Help relatives understand the importance of being flexible within set limits. Those not familiar with your child may think of behaviors as "bad," when they truly are not. Give them books that you have found helpful.

Most importantly – HAVE FUN!



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