One of the biggest challenges that I realized early on that I would face in raising my autistic son is finding the programs that would accommodate him. The normal process of enrolling kids in sports leagues, art programs, or even summer camps now became an exhausting endeavor to find a place that would work with him, or even just give him a chance to participate.
Summer break was (and is) often the worst time of year for my autistic child. P, who thrives on routines and schedules and enjoys classes and learning, suddenly found himself frustrated and lost in all the change and chaos. But I knew that P adored nature, loved running around in the outdoors, and would strongly benefit from the structured social interactions of an outdoor day camp. But no matter where I looked, no program could take him — they lacked resources, staff, training, and frankly couldn’t afford the liability if anything happened to him at camp. It became my mission to find a place for him.
This search took place three years ago and even then, I found excellent camps, but none that quite matched what we needed. Some had a minimum age he hadn’t met yet. Others required a certain level of competency in some skills that he hadn’t reached yet, and others were just too far away. That’s when I stumbled onto Well Wilderness Kids, a program that markets itself as “offer(ing) a variety of Natureplay programs and activities for all ages and abilities”. I found this tagline, frankly, too good to be true. All ages? Really? And ALL abilities?” I had researched enough to know there was always some catch, some reason why my son was too young or too disabled to participate.
The program was better than I could have imagined. The staff consisted of physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists (all therapies my son required and engaged in) as well as music therapists, early childhood educators, and social workers. In fact, in speaking with Stephanie Novacek, the founder of Well Wilderness Kids and a pediatric physical therapist, I was inspired by her story of how the camp developed.
Stephanie felt a calling to move from working in schools and hospital settings to buy land in 2015 and create a space where children of all abilities would be able to experience therapeutic play in an outdoor setting. Her holistic approach of working with the whole child and her unique vision led many teachers and therapists to join the team. In 2016, an early childhood program began. While my son participated in a seasonal summer camp, there are a variety of options including year round programs, private therapies, and camps focused on incorporating nature with art, music, movement, gardening, and taking care of animals. Recently they have expanded their location from Olathe to a Eudora campus as well.
Sending P to day camp at Well Wilderness Kids made me feel safe knowing that in addition to low student to therapist ratios, every staff member there was experienced in working with kids just like him. They were able to accommodate his unique dietary needs and my heart soared as I saw pictures of him smiling and laughing. One day he was covered in mud from head to toe, another he was intent on following the ducks around the pond and watching them waddle, and most days he just loved the sensory experience of the variety of swings around the site.
On most of the autism and special needs moms Facebook groups, one of the biggest questions I see is “What do I do with my child over the summer? Where can they go?” or “My typically developing child is in an amazing camp this summer — why can’t I find a camp for my special needs child?” Well Wilderness came into our lives at just the right moment, and there are many experiences and camps all over the area for many different ages, abilities, and levels of care. It is my hope that every parent with a special child can find a program that is the perfect fit for them — a place that allows their child to be their best self: to learn, grow, and thrive.
Kansas City Camps and Programs
for Autistic and Special Needs Children
Well Wilderness Kids
Great choice for younger children or children needing shorter programs.
Locations: Olathe and Eudora
Minimum Age: all ages
Children Serviced: all abilities, including typically developing peers
Fees: Private therapies available, accepts some insurances and HSA cards
Program Dates: Spring – 8 week sessions, Summer – 4 week sessions, Year Round Natureplay Programs
SOAR Summer Camp 2023 – Day Camp
Great choice for younger children or parents looking for a Vacation Bible School program that can accommodate their child.
Location: Lee’s Summit: July 10-14 at Abundant Life Church (9-4 pm), Overland Park: July 17-21 at Grace Church South (9-4 pm)
Minimum Age: 3 and up
Children Serviced: any children with special needs and their siblings with or without special needs
Details: Some scholarships available. Other events throughout the year including music therapy, prom, social clubs, respite nights, and conferences for caregivers. See soarspecialneeds.org for details.
The J Camp
Best for kids needing all summer care as well as highly regarded in the area as one of the best day camps.
Location: Overland Park
Minimum Age: 2
Children Serviced: children of all abilities, faiths, and cultures
Program Dates: Weekly Day Sessions June 5-Aug 4, 9-4 pm with before and after care for a cost
Details: Due to its popularity, the camp fills up almost immediately the day of enrollment in February. Most sessions are currently full. Spots for kids with special needs are limited and will need to contact the director and pay a portion for a para-educator cost. It is strongly suggested to reach out in January to see if they anticipate having the staffing availability. Some financial assistance is available.
Excellent choice for older children and autistic children who are largely independent and can thrive in 3:2 or 2:1 ratios.
Location: Parkville, MO
Minimum Age: 10
Children Serviced: children with autism ages 10-18
Program Dates: Several 2 or 4 day overnight camps between April and September
Excellent choice for children with complex medical needs, 1:1 help, and the emotional ability to handle a week away from family
Location: Purdy, MO
Minimum Age: 7
Children Serviced: children with autism, special needs and chronic illnesses, including doctors and nurses on staff to administer medicine and any special care needs, 1:1 support if needed.
Program Dates: Week long overnight camps between June and August, different weeks support differently abled children and some even feature siblings that can attend.
Heartland Therapeutic Riding
Wonderful camp for children who enjoy bonding with animals and could benefit from OT and other therapeutic measures.
Location: Overland Park
Minimum Age: Entering 1st grade
Program Dates: week long day camps – half day and full day options, divided by age, June-July
Children Serviced: kids with all abilities and special needs
Details: summer camps are currently full for this year, but therapeutic riding options and hippotherapy are available, scholarships accepted.
Located near Lake of the Ozarks, an award winning camp with a huge amount of activities, best for children who can handle overnight camps
Location: Rocky Mount, MO
Minimum Age: 6, doesn’t age out
Children Serviced: children with any special needs, dates for both 3:1 ratio campers and 1:1 ratio campers, clinical staff on hand to handle medical and dietary needs
Program Dates: Spring and fall Weekend camps in March and April, September-December. Week-long summer camps with various themes every week from May to end of July. Also includes special events such as Father/Son and Mother/Daughter weekend and weekends accommodating families with all abilities.