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Summer Camp: A Good Time for an ADHD Medication Vacation?
An Interview with Molly Shriver-Blake, MSW

Bathing suit - check. Toothbrush - check. Prescription medications? Maybe he won't need them this summer - at least that's what many parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) think as they pack their child up for summer camp. But is summer camp a good time to take kids off their medications?

Molly Shriver-Blake, MSW, base camp program manager at Talisman Camps in North Carolina says, in most cases, no. "A vacation from medication can be detrimental to a child with ADHD who is trying to learn new skills he can use during the school year," she says. "Going off meds makes it more difficult for kids with ADHD to generalize their experience at camp to life at home."

Edward Walton, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, agrees. In a Newsweek Web exclusive, writer Samantha Henig quoted Walton as saying, "If the medications are helping at school and helping at home, we really think they will help at camp." The camp guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, of which Walton was the lead author, state that "elective interruption in medications should be avoided in campers on long-term psychotropic therapy," such as medication for ADHD.

Take a Break, But Not at Camp

For the 2.5 million kids medicated for ADHD with drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, many physicians recommend an occasional break from the medications to determine if the prescription is still needed and to give children a break from possible side effects like decreased appetite and difficulty sleeping.

A 2004 survey conducted by Eli Lilly and Company reported that approximately half of parents of kids with ADHD said they planned to reduce or discontinue their child's ADHD medication over the summer.

But if your child has trouble staying on task, following directions, or relating to peers, medication can help make summer camp a more positive and productive experience. In a 2000 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of California compared children with ADHD taking medication alone with those taking medication and participating in an organized summer treatment camp. The findings showed that those children on the combined medication and activity regimen were far more successful in a number of behavioral categories than those on medication alone.

Because summer camp is designed to teach young people with ADHD new skills that improve their lives at camp, at home, and at school, Molly Shriver-Blake believes kids need continuity in the way they think about and perceive their experiences during and after camp. "Children can take breaks from their medications, but I wouldn't recommend doing so during summer camp," she says.

Talisman campers are engaged in physical activity each day, eat regular, nutritious meals, and have a clear structure to their day, but these aren't necessarily effective replacements for prescription medication. Shriver-Blake, a certified lifeguard and wilderness first responder who has worked with children with special needs since 2002, explains that summer camp can be challenging, particularly for children with ADHD.

"At camp, kids are exposed to new activities that require them to pay attention, follow instructions, and take precautions, along with a new group of peers and new surroundings - changing their medications, and thus the way they experience the world around them, unnecessarily adds one more adjustment into the mix," notes Shriver-Blake.

Benefits of ADHD Summer Camp

Parents who are worried about their child being treated differently or stigmatized for having ADHD may want to consider summer camps that are specifically designed for children with attention deficit disorder. The staff at these camps has extensive experience working with children with learning differences, and offer special activities and programs intended expressly for children with attention, impulsiveness, distractibility, and hyperactivity issues.

Specialized summer programs, like those offered by Talisman, are unique alternatives to ordinary summer camps. Since 1980, Talisman has provided children ages 8 to 17, who have ADD and ADHD, Asperger's syndrome, and high-functioning autism, with experiential wilderness learning camps full of fun, adventure, and new learning experiences. In an atmosphere that encourages and supports self-regulation and self-direction, a staff of trained professionals helps young people with ADHD and related issues develop essential life skills.

In specialized ADHD camps, children are surrounded by peers who can relate to their challenges, as well as caring staff members who know how to empower young boys and girls with special needs.

"Children with ADHD know they are different. But at camp, they also learn they're not alone," states Shriver-Blake. "Unlike a regular summer camp, where kids with special needs often feel ashamed or embarrassed and staff members become irritated with their behaviors, there are a lot of children working through the same issues at Talisman, and the counselors know how to coach kids with special needs."

Camps like Talisman are particularly successful with ADHD kids because they are highly structured, with a small staff-to-camper ratio, and emphasize social skills training and interpersonal interactions. "Children with ADHD often are good at making friends, but struggle to keep friends," notes Shriver-Blake. "We work with them to resolve conflicts, follow instructions, and interact appropriately with other children and adults."

Each day, the campers are given multiple opportunities to discuss issues and reflect on their experiences. For example, campers can "call group" any time of day to deal with situations immediately, as they happen, through a structured group process. "Group" lets the campers practice expressing their opinions and feelings appropriately while listening to others.

In addition, campers take time every day to play "proud, positive, learned," in which each child describes to the group one thing he did well, one thing he particularly liked, and one thing he learned.

Under close supervision, campers at Talisman do chores, set goals for the day, and participate in morning and afternoon activities. All recreational activities are designed to be fun and challenging, but well within each child's realm of possibility. Talisman also takes small groups of children on off-campus field trips to enjoy waterfalls, rock climbing, swimming, or other adventure activities, as well as 4-day hiking, backpacking, or canoeing trips, and "service days" at a local food bank. Every day, the campers have countless opportunities to try new activities, learn new skills, and build positive self-esteem.

"Children with ADHD hear the word no 50 times more often than they hear yes," says Shriver-Blake. "Camp is a place where kids can feel successful and proud of their accomplishments, while also learning new social skills and communication strategies. You don't get over ADHD, so we help kids learn about it, accept it, and work with it for life."

At the same time, campers at Talisman are held accountable for all of their actions. If a child acts out, counselors may use timeouts or impose consequences that are clearly directed at the negative behavior rather than the child. This way, children learn about natural consequences without losing self-esteem. For example, horseplay on a van ride might result in missing the next van trip, or being disrespectful may require apologizing and doing something nice for the other person.

A Judgment Call

The decision to take a medication vacation depends on each individual and her family. But in most cases, children with ADHD are most successful learning, growing, and having fun at camp if their mindset and behaviors are consistent with the rest of the school year.

"The decision is a personal one," advises Shriver-Blake. "Summer camp can be a wonderful experience when properly planned and coordinated. Parents have to ask themselves, 'What would make summer camp the most positive, enriching, and confidence-building experience?' and do what they believe is best for their child."

Talisman offers summer camps for kids with ADHD. They also now offer a semester boarding school for teens with Asperger’s Syndrome.

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