Summer for someone on the autism spectrum can be difficult. The need for new stimulation or the open-ended days of summer can cause anxiety and frustration. As parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, we often find ourselves scratching our heads and wondering what kind of day we can cobble together that will lead to the fewest meltdowns. Summer camps are not always the answer. With limited staff, counselors are not always there to pick up the pieces after a missed social cue or to help with peer to peer interactions.
There are ways to put together a fun summer with minimal frustration. Here are my top 10 ASD-friendly ideas that will help make your transition into summer a little bit easier.
ASD kids can feel the greatest anxiety when the structure is gone from their days. They may have the temptation to stay in bed all day or glue their faces to their iPad screens. A schedule of weekly events will help motivate them to get up and get going. A weekly trip to the library or to a local park will act as stabilizing points for the week. Joining a book club can add to this by setting aside time each week to read or create art work about the book. Print up a calendar with all the events listed so that your child can refer to it and know what is coming.
Before the end of the school year, talk to your child about creating a bucket list of fun ideas. It doesn't have to be elaborate. This can be a way of discovering your child’s expectations for the summer. The list might include trips to the beach or visiting grandparents. Developing a new friendship or spending time with a close friend might also be a part of the list. Once the list is complete, you can add a few to your calendar as things to look forward to.
As we all know, things don’t always go as planned. When an outing goes bad due to rain or unforeseeable events, an ASD child has a difficult time understanding why. It can lead to a real blow up. My plan B has always been a stop at the ice cream parlor, but there are many plan B options to keep in your bag of tricks. A board game battle, an art project that you have tucked away at home, or a special movie would be great distractions from what your child is missing. It may not diffuse the disappointment completely but it is a good way to redirect away from it.
One of the toughest things that we experience as the parent of an ASD child is the inability to stay in one place for very long. Trips to amusement parks and zoos might only last an hour or two as the crowds grow and the weather gets hot. If you live close enough, buying a season pass to parks or museums can make these trips easier. Your visits may include only a portion of a museum each time, allowing you to leave before the crowds come and giving you a reason to return another day. Many amusement parks have easy access accommodations for ASD children, helping speed up wait times. These visits can also be added to the calendar as perhaps an every-other-week outing.
As tempting as it is to pack the day full of fun outings, remember that many ASD children need down time. Putting too much into a day can lead to a meltdown later. Breaking the day into two parts, with a rest time in between, helps. Even on overnight trips, it’s important to factor in this decompression time, and sitting in the car doesn’t always count. A quiet place and a snack will, most times, reset the body and mind, allowing your child to move forward to the next adventure.
My son loves cars. One summer, we made a plan to visit as many car shows as we could. It was inexpensive and always an adventure to see new car styles and their owners. Make a point to connect with your child’s passion (usually we have one to work with) and make plans. A passion for trains could lead to a weekly visit to different train stations in the area. A love of art could lead to galleries. An interest in animals might take you to farms or rescue centers. You can connect this with your library outings, searching for books on the topic to learn more.
One year my son and I decided to visit every known park within a 10 mile radius. We checked each one out and then rated them on how much fun they were. The next year we did a tour of water parks and pools in the area. Creating tours can fill up slow days or add something to the end of a day. Forest preserves, arcades, ice cream shops, and pet stores are all great ideas. Add a rating system or scavenger hunt to keep it interesting.
As we already know, one of the biggest struggles our ASD children face is making friends. Summer is the perfect time to make new friends and build on old friendships. Create a social day for the summer. Maybe take a friend on one of your outings or invite him over for lunch and a movie. Anything to keep those connections open or to develop new ones. Stay away from competitive ideas like games, and center around ideas that will keep everyone relaxed. Encourage communication and direct the focus on things that the children have in common.
With the pressures of school fading away, now is the time to focus on ideas such as empathy and independence. Getting involved in a charity is the perfect way to help your ASD child get in touch with that softer side. Keep it connected with their interests. Animal lovers can collect newspapers for local rescue centers. Gather food or clothing for donation.
When we began our charity work, it was difficult to get my son involved. Start slow. Research the charity online and print out pictures. Put aside 15 minutes at a time to work on the project. The end result can be a visit to the charity to show your child how his time helped others.
It’s important to keep up with some continued school work. As the summer comes to an end, probably quicker than you anticipate, the transition back into school will be easier if there is just a hint of school work thrown into the summer. Not right away and not too much, but a little math or a small writing assignment will keep their minds ready to begin again in the fall.
I’m a strong believer that summer vacation should be a time of fun and regrouping. Our children work hard during the school year and they need a break both physically and emotionally. Even though summer should be fun, ASD kids have a difficult time transitioning into the break. Keeping a schedule, making it simple, and listening to your child’s input will help ensure a summer of fun and will minimize the stress and anxiety of the unknown. Start slow, plan your bucket list, don’t forget the sensory breaks, and have a fun-filled summer!