Preparing Children with Autism for Summer

Preparing Children with Autism for SummerMost of us dream of the last day of school (teachers, in particular). We get to take part in all sorts of fantastic things in the summer, like sleeping in, writing, playing games, going on vacation, and stalking our friends on Facebook at three A.M.

As much as most of us are looking forward to (or already enjoy) a summer of freedom, there are some, particularly children, who will struggle with this new found freedom. They’re the same children who struggle with changes during the holiday season, and changes in the school day when schedules get switched around for assemblies.

Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders struggle with changes, particularly in their daily schedules. We’ve discussed how children with Autism need extra support during the holiday season. Now we’re going to discuss how we can support them throughout the summer.

Why Is the Summer Hard?

While Christmas can be difficult for children with Autism, summer can be even harder. Instead of finding things to do for two weeks, our kiddos have ten or more weeks to fill. For other children, these ten weeks can be filled with magic days playing outside or visiting neighbor children or taking vacations. Not so for children with Autism.

Let’s use an example, Joseph. During the school year, Joseph wakes up at 6:45 every morning. He Summer can be difficult for children with Autism because safe routines are gonegoes downstairs and eats a bowl of cereal. School starts at 7:45. Joseph’s second grade class has Math, Writing, and Reading before lunch, which comes precisely at 11:30. Then comes recess, followed by reading, and science. Library is on Tuesdays, and P.E. is on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. After school, Joseph goes to therapy on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When he gets home, he spends some time unwinding before he does homework at 5, then they eat dinner at 6. Reading comes before bedtime, which is at 8:30.

During summer, this doesn’t happen.

The National Autistic Society’s article, “Change: preparing a person with Autism” says, “A person with an ASD [Autistic Spectrum Disorder] thrives on being in a familiar environment with routine and structure,” So while children with Autism may not enjoy every minute of the school day, they take comfort in the structure. They feel safe when they know what to expect and when and where’s it’s going to happen. When you take away that environment and predictability, they feel lost. The seemingly silly tantrums children with Autism often throw are often actually their struggle to cope with the changes they see as unsafe.

This begs the question, “How do we help our children with ASDs not only to make the transition, but enjoy summer?”. While the concept might seem hard, it can be done.

Talk about the change ahead of time.

It’s important to prepare children with Autism for changes before they happen when possible. By talking about it enough, children have the time to make the change in their heads. Their plans will eventually hinge on the new event itself as it has become part of the plan. But that doesn’t happen immediately.

The May Institute’s article, “Helping your child with autism adjust to and enjoy the summer season!” says, “Summer can also mean changes in a child’s daytime schedule. If your child attends a school that has a different summer schedule, it’s important to make sure that he or she is aware of the changes that will occur.” Talk to your child. While he may not be receptive to the changes at first, telling him multiple times will help him slowly adjust, even if he doesn’t show it.

Helping Your Child Create Summer Structure of His Own

One of the most important ways to begin helping him to adjust to the new summer schedule is to create a structure of your own. While this structure will sometimes fall off track (They all do at times, even in school.), it’s important to have parts of life he can count on. Here are a few simple parts of life you can structure:

  • Time to get out of bed.
  • Breakfast
  • Time outside
  • Lunch
  • Reading time
  • Video Game / Computer / DS time
  • Dinner
  • Bedtime

While these may seem like a lot of ideas, many of them are really not very time consuming. They also leave you with schedule times to get things done like yard work or laundry or reading to yourself. Depending on the age of your child, you might need to help him with some things, while you can leave him alone with others.

May Institute also suggests creating a graphic board. I did this for a child at school last year, and it’s not very hard. Here’s an example of what Joseph’s morning picture schedule might look like.

Morning ScheduleAt first glance, it might seem a bit controlling. What many people don’t know, however, is how secure structure can make a child with an ASD feel. While many children know they’ll get dressed sometime in the morning, Joseph will probably want to see it on his sheet because it means it’s really going to happen.

A Few Productive Structural Ideas

1. Pursuing Favorite Interests

Summer can be a fantastic chance for children with Autism to learn on their own timeline. Kiddos with Autism often have obsessions; they do what we call perseveration. The Glossary of Terms from Autism Speaks defines perseveration as, “repeating or “getting stuck” carrying out a behavior.” This can also include interests, hobbies, or thoughts, which end up as the obsessions we often see in children with Autism. And while these obsessions can be a bit distracting at school, they’re often great topics to study when children are out of school.

For example, Joseph might be obsessed with sharks. While his teacher probably doesn’t want to discuss sharks while she’s trying to teach the class about the Revolutionary War, Joseph can study sharks as much as he wants during the summer. He can borrow books from the library, watch documentaries, and learn his little heart out. It’ll keep him reading, and he’ll be learning the whole time.

2. Assign Practice Homework

Children will usually moan and groan when given work over the summer, but a little bit is good for them. It will keep their brains active, and they’ll be more ready to learn when they begin the next school year. Because children with Autism often have learning disabilities, studying over the summer can help them stay closer to their target reading or math levels, and it’s one more productive daily event that can go on their schedules.

Note: I’ll be including some summer learning resources in my Weekly Newsletter this Friday for all my subscribers.

3. Get them out of the house.

Children with Autism are often quite happy to be by themselves or with the people they trust…and no one else. While other children are likely to go out and play with neighbors and friends during the summer, children with Autism often need to be put in environments with others before they’ll interact if they’re not comfortable. In Elizabeth I Field’s article, “Autism Fieldwork,” she suggests summer camps or school summer programs. (There are quite a few summer programs specifically designed for children with Autism, such as Camp WANNAGOAGAIN (a longer camp), or Kidstar Summer Day Camp in Utah.

Note: I will be sending a link with a compiled list of Autism Summer Camps in my newsletter this week as well.

A closer-to-home option would be to spend time together out of the house, but around town. Here are some ideas:

  • The local library
  • Purchasing a seasonal pass to a favorite place, such as a zoo.
  • The dollar theater
  • A bookstore
  • Local museums
  • A local pool or community center

It will all depend on your child. No one knows your child as well as you do, For some, the local pool might be too stimulating. Others might be afraid of animals. It’s important to find something that stretches your child’s comfort boundaries while giving him something to enjoy.

4. Physical Activity

Autism.com’s article, “Advice for Parents,” says that many children with Autism have low muscle tone, and that it can also limit their gross and fine motor skills. It’s particularly important for children with Autism to get exercise during the summer since they’re not participating in P.E. Instead of making simply doing boring calisthenics, however, there are lots of fun alternative to get kids moving on their own.

If your child struggles with playing outside (severe fears of bugs or dirt can make being outside an uncomfortable experience), there are indoor options such as the Wii or the Xbox Kinect. Zumba Kids has great videos on Youtube that the students at my school love.

Physical activity can also be another chance to get your child some social exposure in a controlled environment. Local community centers often offer dance classes, basketball teams, and karate classes for children. While your child might not be thrilled at the idea of going (he might throw a fit, actually), being in a class with an instructor and instructions will probably be much more beneficial to him than if you simply threw him in with a bunch of other children and no structured setting.

5. Vacation

Ah, the inevitable summer vacation. In all fairness, Mom and Dad probably need this vacation like no one’s business, as can the child’s siblings. Don’t be hurt, however, if your child pitches a fit when you tell him you’re interrupting his routines to take him somewhere he’s never been. In his eyes, you might be ripping away nearly all that makes him feel safe.

It really is good, however, for children with Autism to experience some changes. No matter how much we want to shield our children, life just comes with changes, and we might as well help them experiences changes in the best ways possible while they’re young and learning. Here are three steps to planning a vacation that you and your child can enjoy:

A. Tell your child ahead of time. – While planning a trip for a child with Autism, it’s important to Including your child with autism in vacation planningtell him ahead of time. Even if you’re going somewhere he loves, surprising him probably isn’t a good idea. Just as he adjusted to a new summer schedule because you made the change part of his schedule, he’ll need time to adjust to the idea of going somewhere new.

B. Research places that your child might enjoy – While I’m a Disney fanatic, there are many people (including those without Autism) who find large theme parks to be overwhelming. As children with Autism often struggle with sensory processing problems, theme parks may not be the best places to go. Or perhaps your child hates to get dirty. The beach may not be the best place to expose him to sand. If you’re looking for places that can accommodate special needs, here’s a list of 32 Vacation Destinations for Individuals with Special Needs, some of which include Autism.

C. Include your children in vacation planning. If you child with Autism loves animals, try to plan a visit to the zoo, etc. This gives them time to mentally prepare and gives them something to look forward to, especially if they’re struggling with the idea of leaving on a vacation. Our example child, Joseph, loves sharks, as we mentioned earlier, so his parents might include an aquarium or two in their list of vacation destinations.

Will We Survive the Summer?

At some point, you will have to interrupt routines and change plans. If you can, the most important thing you can do is notify the child ahead of time. In the event you can’t, try to talk on a regular basis with your child about how surprises sometimes happen in life. Children with Autism can find this transition to summer difficult, but with trial and error, with discussion and planning, with living one day at a time, you can begin to find that happy middle ground.

Do you have any tips to share about planning a summer for a child with Autism? Please post your questions and comments in the Comment Box Below. We’d love to hear what you have to say! Also, don’t forget that I’ll be sharing more links than usual this week in my newsletter to help with planning a summer for children with Autism. As always, thanks for reading!

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