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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."

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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.

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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.

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"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.

Ms. Buczek says that from the moment they dropped Emily off, the staff was able to deal with her quirks, whether it was to make her feel comfortable as her parents drove away or letting her have her favourite foods.

They even broke their no-electronics rule and allowed Emily to keep the Game Boy she uses as white noise to fall asleep.

While Emily is non-verbal - she speaks about 10 words - Ms. Buczek says she believes her daughter enjoyed the experience.

A counsellor sent Ms. Buczek a CD of photos in which counsellors gaze lovingly at Emily as she undertakes typical camp activities such as tubing and swimming.

Even though Dr. Diller says there is no research to show the effects of being at a special needs camp are long-lasting, Ms. Buczek hopes the moments captured in those photos are meaningful to her daughter.

"You can see the affection," Ms. Buczek says. "They had a rapport with her right away. They were so accommodating and positive."

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Special-needs camps

CAMP KODIAK

Located on Lake Moffat just north of Parry Sound, Ont., the camp serves children aged 6 to 18 with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder and Asperger syndrome. It provides a ratio of one staff member for every two campers. Each cabin houses nine campers with a minimum of three counsellors; the head counsellor in each is a teacher, psychologist, social worker or child and youth worker.

POWER TO BE ADVENTURE THERAPY

With camps in Vancouver and Victoria for young people with disabilities, brain injuries and life-threatening illnesses, the program offers lessons in kayaking, skiing and rock climbing as well as multi-day wilderness adventures.

ZAJAC RANCH

On Stave Lake in Mission, B.C., the non-profit ranch is a sleepover camp for boys and girls aged 7 to 17. Week-long summer sessions are held for kids with special needs including those with spina bifida, Turner syndrome, blood disorders, Down syndrome, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, gastrointestinal conditions, Tourette syndrome, craniofacial differences, autism, kidney disease and multi-organ transplants. The ratio of campers to counsellors averages 3:1, but can be as low as 1:1 depending on needs. A 24-hour medical centre has staff from B.C. Children's Hospital, and walking trails are wheelchair-accessible.

ASTHMA DAY CAMP

Run by the Lung Association, day and sleepover camps are held in locations across the country. Children receive asthma education in a fun environment facilitated by a medical professional who is a certified asthma educator. Physician referrals required.

CAMP WINSTON

A residential summer recreation program in Muskoka, Ont., for campers aged 6 to 13 with complex neurological disorders including Tourette syndrome, attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, oppositional defiant disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and autism.

CAMP KIRK

An overnight camp for boys and girls aged 6 to 13 with learning disabilities and/or attention deficit disorder, including those with incontinence or bedwetting difficulties. Located in Kirkfield, Ont., the camp has activities ranging from martial arts to drama and ceramics. The camp also organizes canoe trips to Algonquin Park, the Leslie Frost Centre and other areas.

Siri Agrell

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GEAR: HEAD-TO-TOE

Enjoying the great outdoors doesn't have to mean shivering in a soggy tent munching Ramen noodles any more. This summer's new crop of high-performance gear will take the roughing it out of going to camp. Anna-Kaisa Walker rounds up the essentials

SUREFIRE KROMA FLASHLIGHT

When a dinky little Maglite just won't do, whip out this sucker - it's small (about 15 centimetres long) but packs a real punch. The company's LED technology was designed for military and SWAT team use, and the Kroma's 50-lumens beam is bright enough to "temporarily blind an assailant," according to its website.

Even if you won't be busting down any crack-den doors, you'll be sure never to lose your keys in the bush. For those who just want to read a book, the low setting lasts up to 20 hours. The additional red beam is ideal for late-night deer and bunny sightings - many animals can't see red light. $335.95. (Surefire doesn't ship directly to Canada, but the Kroma can be ordered from )

OAKLEY RADAR SUNGLASSES

These are serious sporting shades, and at this price you won't want to risk dropping them in whitewater rapids. Fortunately Radar frames, which come in three wraparound shapes, have customizable nosepieces made of Unobtainium, a synthetic that increases grip the more you sweat. The smudge-resistant lenses are coated with a finish that repels water, sunscreen, debris and even permanent marker. Available in men's and women's, $255 to $360.

TEVA KARNALI WRAPTOR SANDALS

A 360-degree strapping system ensures these sandals stay put on your feet, whether you're on the trail or in the river. But the quick-release buckle means you can get them off and on with minimal fiddling. A fungus-fighting zinc coating keeps odours at bay, while patent-pending mesh ports in the sole allow water to escape through the bottom of the shoe. Available in men's and women's. $100 (U.S.).

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