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For kids with special needs, camp comes with valuable therapy, higher price tag

At the Leaps and Bounds Occupational Therapy day camp in Washington, kids with autism, learning disabilities and other special needs have fun while they learn to improve their motor skills.

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By Mari-Jane Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010

Matthew Hoffman will spend much of his summer doing handwriting exercises set to music, practicing conversation techniques with other kids on the soccer field and improving his motor planning by learning to ride a bike.

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In other words, the 6-year-old from Bethesda is going to camp.

Matthew has autism. So his five weeks at Basic Concepts in Rockville, which began June 28, will be different from the typical summer day camp in the Washington area.

Few counselors at Basic Concepts are home from college for the summer. The staff members are trained specialists in speech and occupational therapy as well as special education teachers and play therapists. And there are lots of them: one therapist for every two or three children. Equipment goes far beyond what you usually find at the playground, including weighted vests, trampolines and swings commonly used in therapy sessions.

"I love that he can go to a summer camp like every other kid," said Matthew's mother, Ali Hoffman.

Basic Concepts, a private therapy center offering speech and language services and other help for children with mild learning differences, began a therapeutic camp a decade ago with 10 children. This year, it is at capacity with 90 students and had to turn families away because of a lack of space, said Katy Whidden, a speech and language pathologist at the center.

Across the Washington region, enrollment in therapeutic camps soars every year, although they are far more expensive than traditional day camp.

Camp Friendship, which is run by Tots to Teens, a speech therapy practice in Woodbridge, drew kids from five counties last year for its program in Stafford County. This year, it is adding a session in Prince William County to meet the demand.

Lynne Israel, director of Lynne C. Israel and Associates in the District, an occupational therapy group, said she has been able to fill as many as 70 slots at her summer camp in recent years, with requests for more.

Complicated issues

Most campers have a combination of delays and diagnoses that can include autism spectrum disorders and learning disabilities as well as sensory processing problems, defined by difficulty handling certain sounds, sights, smells, textures and other environmental stimuli. These children struggle with reading, writing, cutting and sustaining conversations with other kids. Loud noises, bright lights or unfamiliar tastes or textures can disrupt or disorganize them.

Therapeutic camps, with small-group activities and individual plans for each camper, are often modeled after the weekly therapy sessions and classroom help that many of the children receive during the school year. The goals are the same: to improve their academic and social skills and help them better function in what often seems like an overwhelming world.

So cooking, for example, becomes a way to expand vocabulary and teach campers how to work together. Science experiments force children to get their hands dirty and get accustomed to new textures. Arts and crafts projects double as intense practice of fine motor skills.

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