“Summertime is always the best of what might be.” – Charles Bowden
As I look outside my window at the bright sunshine and the green, leafy trees swaying in the wind, I realize how much I love summer. At the same time summer can sometimes be challenging in that it takes us out of some of the routines that we are used to during the rest of the year. For some children with special needs, particularly some children with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder, a summer away from the structure and routine of the school day can be dysregulating. For the families and loved ones of these children, summertime and keeping their children engaged and regulated can be difficult.
Summer can be full of fun activities such as a day at the beach, swimming in a pool, going to a barbecue, going to the drive-in, or a picnic in the park. It is important to look at how we can structure or adapt these typical activities in order to help children with ASD be successful. Below are some tips to help you think about how to structure activities to meet the individual strengths, needs, and challenges of your child.
- Try and maintain certain aspects of your child’s school year schedule to cut down on the number of changes/transitions. For example, try to have your child wake up and go to bed at the same time he/she would during the school year to maintain the rhythm of the day that he/she is used to.
- When trying to create activities, attempt to mirror some of the activities or activity categories that your child typically engages in at school, if possible on the same days and/or times. For example, if your child is used to going out to recess after lunch, consider scheduling an outdoor activity after at that same time at home. The consistency of sticking to a familiar schedule can be comforting. In addition, maintaining adult directions and expectations can help with the transition back to school in September.
- Create a daily schedule of activities so that your child can know in advance what his/her day will look like. If you are not sure what the whole day will look like (if an activity hinges on the weather later in the day, or if you are waiting for others to confirm plans) you can shorten the schedule or use “first, then” activity boards to give that advanced prediction. In addition, you might use a “special activity” visual icon for those activities that you may not be sure of until later. This will give you some ability to change activities if need be. If your child uses a familiar schedule template and icons at school see if you can incorporate that same ones at home.
- Create within-task/activity for less-familiar or more challenging activities. These “mini-schedules” outline the steps of each activity in order to make the activity as a whole more manageable and to help your child understand what is expected of him/her during that time. This can also help your child see that there is a concrete end to the activity if he/she might be hesitant or resistant.
- The internet can be your friend. Take some time to sit down and explore what resources are already available. This can range from current activities available in your community to blogs and articles from professionals and other parents that include ASD-friendly activities or adaptations to activities that have already been successful.
- Have a “rainy day” or “emergency” kit of prepared/novel activities at the ready for when the weather is not cooperating (i.e., a real rainy day) or for those times where the activity you had planned did not work out. The internet has many simple, creative, hands-on activity ideas for your “kit”. Examples may include simple recipes, art projects, and sensory experiences.
- Search for activity ideas that are sensory-friendly. Finding activities that allow your child to be himself/herself can greatly reduce the stress of the activity for both you and your child. For example, some movie theaters have sensory-friendly showings of current movies that are set up to permit child to move around and where lights are kept on and the sound level is lowered to reduce stimulation. Important sensory considerations when planning an activity or thinking about the environment the activity will take place in, include: the amount of space your child will need, what level of structure, types of noise, size of crowds, etc. your child can tolerate, as well as what level of supervision and personal support are required. Adaptations can sometimes be made to minimize the impact of sensory challenges when considered in advance.
- Be prepared. Think of both proactive strategies and reactive responses that will help support engagement and emotional regulation. Try to frontload activities as much as possible with proactive strategies that you know work for you child. These include visual supports, communication strategies, and a regulation tool kit or list of sensory supports. Having some consistent and predictable responses to dysregulation based on individual environments may also be helpful. For example, what spaces are available to take a break, are there spots that are less crowded or quieter, where is the closest exit, or who can I access for support.
- Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. As many of know, the best laid plans can go awry. Also, it is important to be realistic in regards to expectations for your activities. Know your child’s signs of dysregulation and attempt when possible to end an activity on a positive note. This will increase your child’s motivation to try the activity again in the future. To help avoid dysregulation, have backup plans and regulation skills ready for your child to engage in when needed.
- Plan activities and breaks for yourself. Know your limits and when you yourself are getting overwhelmed or dysregulated. Make sure that you have a self-care plan that includes activities that you find relaxing and that give you opportunities to socialize, even if only for a few minutes.
Eric Campbell | Senior Director of Education
Sheri Sastre | Lead Residential Consultant ASD