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Where kids get what they need Add to ...

Swimming and art class may be the classic stuff of summer camp memories, but classes on social skills and asthma management are just as likely to be on the schedule these days.

While specialty camps for kids with cancer and other serious illnesses have been around for a while, now there are special-needs camps for kids with milder afflictions such as asthma and attention deficit disorder. There's even a cleft palate camp run out of a special needs camp in British Columbia.

"If you can think of a population," says Edward Walton, a professor of pediatrics with a specialty in summer camp at the University of Michigan, "there is a camp for that population somewhere."

But as the niches multiply, some observers argue that special-needs camps, even if they appear to be serving a need, risk being more about programming, fixing and labelling kids than they are about letting them just have fun.

What's more, while children tend to function quite well in these environments, there's no research that indicates these intense programs help kids beyond the time they are at camp - much the way medication only works while it's in the system, says Lawrence Diller.

Dr. Diller is a developmental/behavioural pediatrician and author of The Last Normal Child: Essays on the Intersection of Kids, Culture, and Psychiatric Drugs (Praeger 2006).

"There is an industry out there to service the parents' anxieties and teachers' anxieties," he says.

"I would question whether these kids might be better off with a little different treatment in a normal environment, and whether the labelling does any good."

For some children, however, only a special camp will fit the bill.

Toronto mother Beth Kingston says Camp Winston in Muskoka, Ont., was the only choice for her 16-year-old daughter, who has the autism-spectrum Asperger syndrome.

Camp Winston is designed for kids with neurological disorders including Tourette syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Ms. Kingston's daughter, whom the family asked not be identified by name, has been attending the camp for five years and aspires to become a counsellor.

"This was the only place that wouldn't send her back home," Ms. Kingston says. "If you don't live with it, you don't get it."

Her daughter has trouble communicating with others, but Ms. Kingston says she has formed close friendships with fellow campers with Asperger syndrome.

"They use language differently," Ms. Kingston says. "Instead of having a cohesive discussion back and forth, sometimes they'll just say [individual]words."

Dr. Diller says the children who are most frequently diagnosed as "different" are the ones who have mild conditions.

"There's a host of diagnoses: the out-of-sync child, the non-verbal learning disability child, the Asperger child - the socially awkward child."

But for kids with these disorders, the risk is that by making them feel good about themselves in the short term at a special-needs camp, we may reinforce an intolerance of minor differences by encouraging segregation, he says.

Beyond the growing business of summer camps, Dr. Diller is concerned about labelling those children with diagnoses, and the increasing trend toward treating them with drugs.

If the 450-child, multi-year wait list at Camp Winston is any indication, parents are cleaving to the idea that they can find a camp experience tailored to their child's needs.

And although some children's health issues may be invisible to the public, they are in just as much need as their more severely disabled counterparts, says Denise Fruchter, director at Camp Winston.

Many of the kids that come to her have been kicked out of traditional camps for "bad" behaviours common to their conditions, she says. Some appear to do well at other camps, but are failing to connect with their peers.

Ms. Fruchter cites the case of a female camper who had spent the previous summer at a traditional camp. Her counsellors considered her a well-behaved child, but "she didn't speak to her peers and she read 36 novels," Ms. Fruchter says.

Both kinds of kids - the child who acts out and the one who is introverted - benefit from specialized programming, including daily social skills training, Ms. Fruchter says.

At Camp Winston, campers use role playing, skits and art to learn how to negotiate, how to handle themselves when they don't get their own way, and how to behave when they win or lose a game.

The skill of the day is then reinforced during the activities that follow, such as art class. If the skill is to encourage others, counsellors keep a watchful eye on kids as they critique each other's work.

"We try to get to them before they mess up," Ms. Fruchter says. "A lot of camps wait for them to do things wrong, then they're in trouble."

Etobicoke mother Christina Buczek isn't waiting. She's sending her 10-year-old autistic daughter Emily to Camp Winston for a second summer.

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