Summer is the season of flip-flops and dripping ice cream cones, of long, lazy days at the beach, and heated baseball games. It’s the season where schedules are looser and spontaneous activities and outings are often the norm.
However, for the parents of children with ASD, summertime can be especially challenging. The change in the child’s daily schedule, lack of a regular routine, as well as travel to unfamiliar places and spending time with extended family who may not understand autism, can all be triggering for the child.
The good news is that with proper planning, you can still enjoy the summer months with your child. Here are five tips to help you and your child have a calm, relaxing and super-fun summer.
- Create a daily schedule
With school out, your child may be at a loss with how to fill their time. For a child who may not be proficient at self-entertainment, the empty days can be a meltdown waiting to happen.
Avoid this and keep your child—and yourself—happy by creating a daily schedule for summer days. You can do this together with your child or work on it alone, being careful to fill time slots from wakeup time until bedtime. Allow for free play in small intervals throughout the day and build daily behaviors, such as brushing teeth and showering, into the schedule as well. If your child will be receiving therapy in the summer, be sure to incorporate these sessions into the schedule as well.
When your schedule is complete, hang it in a prominent place where your child can reference it as needed. You may want to hang more than one copy around the house, such as sticking one up on the fridge, and another on the wall in your child’s bedroom. If your child is too young to read, use pictures to show activities on the schedule instead of written words.
Having a steady, daily routine will make it easier for your child to adjust to the looser schedule of the summer months.
- Evaluate the abilities of your child when planning activities and trips
Before you make any definitive summer plans, take an honest assessment of your child’s abilities and threshold of tolerance. It’s likely not a good idea to challenge that tolerance during your annual vacation or at the family reunion weekend. Instead, try to choose activities and trips that your child can easily handle. Consider hobbies and interests that your child would love to explore during the school months. Look for ways your child can build on those interests during their expanded free time in the summer. Finally, when planning activities and trips, avoid those that can cause sensory overload and upset your child.
- Prepare carefully for trips
Day trips and longer getaways are a fixture in the American summer. As a family with a child on the autism spectrum, you know that things will be a little different for you and that a change in your child’s surroundings can be triggering. These tips can help keep things calm on trips:
- Prepare your child in advance. Speak to your child about the trip and let them know what to expect before you set out. If possible, show them pictures of your destination so their new surroundings are not a complete surprise. You can even create a schedule for trip day, or for a multi-day vacation so your child knows what to expect throughout the trip.
- Call ahead to your destination to see if they can accommodate any sensory concerns. Let them know you have a child with autism and share your child’s specific struggles. Some venues will agree to lower the music for a child with auditory sensitivity. Some airlines allow a child with ASD to board the plane before takeoff so they can explore their new surroundings.
- Bring comfort. Small comforts from home, such as a favorite blanket, teddy bear, or sensory toy, can go a long way towards making your child into a happy traveler.
- Have an emergency backup plan. Be sure to plan for any eventuality during your trip. Bring along any calming medication you may use on occasion. Pack a photo of your child in case they get lost. Think of an alternate outing in case your first choice turns out to be a disaster for your child.
With proper planning, you can enjoy a fun getaway with your entire family.
- Communicate with family members ahead of time
If your summer plans include visits to or from extended family members you don’t see often, it’s best to communicate with them in advance about your child’s specific needs and behaviors. For example, you can let them know your child is most comfortable seated on their own chair as opposed to squeezing together with their cousins on a bench. You can tell them that your child prefers not to be hugged or kissed and let them know that you will be bringing your own food for your child, if relevant. The more you communicate in advance, the less room you’ll leave for meltdowns and misunderstandings.
- Don’t neglect practicing academic, social and behavioral skills
School is out, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to neglect your child’s schoolwork. Make sure to build time into your daily schedule for summer homework, or for practicing schoolwork in another way, such as through an educational app or online game. Similarly, it’s important to incorporate time for any “therapy homework” your child may need to do at home, such as practicing social and behavioral skills they’ve learned in therapy.
Summer with a child on the ASD spectrum may look a bit different than it does for families with neuro-typical children, but with some adjustments to expectations and lots of advanced planning, you can enjoy a fun summer vacation with your entire family.