Summer camp is a pastime that every child should have the opportunity to experience, and for parents with little ones with special needs, it can be incredibly frustrating and tedious to pinpoint programs that are good fits for their sons and daughters. Because there are so many more sensory and developmental factors a special needs parent needs to consider, it can be overwhelming at times. So, here is a small list of camps that not only accommodate, but cater to, children on the autism spectrum as well as children with developmental disabilities.
You can find more New Jersey summer camps in our Camp Guide and Full Directory of Listings.
Camp Excel – Harrington Park and Neptune Township
This comprehensive day camp for kids age 5–17 has it all: academics, therapeutic activities, sports, and recreation. Throughout the day, staff members provide encouragement and guidance in using appropriate social skills, giving children the opportunity to experience in-the-moment learning that stays with them. They also offer parent and siblings groups. The camp has two locations, in Bergen County and Monmouth County.
Camp Fatima – Harrison
Truly a champion of the idea that every child needs a place to meet friends, play games, and spend time in the sun, regardless of the challenges of his or her disability, Camp Fatima provides a special place for school-aged children to sleep away for a week and enjoy an amazing experience courtesy of 24-hour, round-the-clock individualized care (aided by a team of registered nurses, lifeguards, counselors, and administrators), and a supportive, super fun atmosphere. As a non-profit organization, Camp Fatima is free to all campers—and parents can feel comfort and confidence in their child having a wonderful time, all under the wing of his or her own personally-appointed counselor.
Camp Haverim – Tenafly
Meaning "friends" in Hebrew, Haverim is a two-week camp for children and teens with autism and other cognitive and developmental delays (who attend 11 months of special schooling and have sufficient communication skills and autonomy to participate independently). The most incredible highlight of Haverim is the unique face-to-face home-visit precedent that was set very early on. Head teachers are required to make visits to each camper's home to coordinate academic and behavioral programs specifically tailored to him or her. Group sizes are kept between four and eight campers to guarantee vigilant supervision, and activities include social skills sessions, swimming, sports and adaptive physical education, music & movement, art & yoga, and academic enrichment. All facilitated by exceptional role model counselors and aided by friendly, smile-worthy therapy dogs.
Canoeing at Camp Merry Heart.
Camp Oakhurst – Oakhurst
Located on a scenic 15-acre site in Oakhurst, New Jersey, the eponymous camp is home to more than 500 children, teens, and adults with physical and developmental abilities. The sleep-away aspect is lots of fun and can be a wonderful learning opportunity where children can create lasting memories and make new friends—all in the comfort of a place that is barrier-free and adapted to a child's needs (fostering growth and greater independence). Designed for higher functioning campers ages 8-19, who can communicate and get along with their peers, the two-week program allows kids to enjoy all of the things other kids do at traditional summer camp—including swimming, cooking their favorite foods, playing baseball, telling stories around the campfire, taking trips off-camp, and acting in their own play.
Camp Star – Mountainside
This six-week day camp serves kids ages 3–21 with developmental disabilities. Located at the ARC Family Center at Kohler School, Camp Star includes access to nearby Echo Lake Park. Activities include music, arts and crafts, adaptive physical education, swimming, nature exploration, and swimming. Camp Star also provides numerous group trips and field trips for the campers.
Easterseals Camp Merry Heart – Hackettstown
Located on 123 beautiful acres, Camp Merry Heart provides a safe and supervised setting where individuals with disabilities and special needs can participate in a wide variety of recreational activities. It offers an overnight camp for ages 6 and up, and activities include swimming, canoeing, zip lining, arts and crafts, team sports, music, and more.
Harbor Haven – West Orange
Harbor Haven is a comprehensive, nurturing summer day camp program in a private school setting. It provides an opportunity for children ages 3–15 with mild special needs to experience summer camp activities such as athletics, swimming, nature, performing arts, cooking, photography, computers, arts and crafts, yoga, trips, special events, entertainment, and more. It also offers social skills training, daily academics, speech and occupational therapy, reverse inclusion, and a special program for 16–18-year-olds.
Top photo: Harbor Haven campers. Photos courtesy of the camps.
Originally published February 2011. Updated for 2018.