You're trying to find things for your child to do all summer that are safe, entertaining, and maybe if you're lucky, have some educational value. If you're like most moms and dads, you're trying to hold down a job at the same time. Now, add “Aspergers” (high functioning autism) to the equation and things have just gotten exponentially more complicated.
Your Aspergers youngster needs structure and routine during the summer, and you're at a loss to think of activities that can give it to them. You fear a summer full of meltdowns and regression. What can you do?
Not to worry, the list below will include plenty of tips for ensuring a successful summer for both you and your youngster with Aspergers or High-Functioning Autism:
1. Ask your Aspergers youngster about what he plans or expects to happen when out of school or on vacation. Doing so will help clear up any misconceptions about the things you either agree on or disagree about.
2. Avoid springing things on your Aspergers youngster. It causes confusion and distress. There go those insecurity-control issues again. Prepare him for changes as far in advance as possible.
3. Bring a Discman or MP3 player so he can listen to music on the plane or in the car or a favorite toy – and definitely favorite foods. Try to imagine possible problems that might come up and how you will solve them—and what materials you will need to solve them. Take books, video players or anything else you think will help for distraction during those difficult moments. If you're going on a long car trip, you might want to look up some car games to play, such as trying to spot letters on license plates, 20 questions, or other games one can play in the car to pass the time and keep your youngster occupied.
4. Discuss fear of the unknown or uncontrolled event with your quiet Aspergers youngster. Aspergers kids don’t like the unexpected and they really need the security of knowing when, where, how, and why. They are generally very comfortable in their usual surroundings (school, home, friend’s house), but may become anxious about traveling, staying in hotels or camping “in the wild!”
5. Do not try “breaking habits” while on vacation. I know a mother who tried to break her Aspergers son’s annoying habit of drumming his feet and fingers on just about everything. She reasoned that since she would be constantly with the boy while on a family trip to the beach, she could break him of the habit by catching him and threatening dire consequences if he didn’t stop. I later learned that the entire trip was a disaster. Instead of focusing on family fun and relaxation, it became a constant battle of “who was in control!”
6. Don't be alarmed if your youngster doesn't want to do much during the summer. But by the same token, do try to plan some regular activities and outings so that they are still engaged with the world. Find areas of interest. If your youngster is interested in movies, see if there is a movie-making class or club that meets nearby; if they are into reading, then find a book club. Most towns have town-sponsored recreation programs that are offered during the summer at low cost, and this can be a great place to start. There is everything from sports to arts and crafts and things in between. Some towns even have programs specifically for special needs children.
7. Don't try to fit your youngster into a mold of what they "should" want, or what you think should be typical for their age; pay attention to what their actual needs and wants are to ensure a more successful vacation.
8. Give your Aspie as much control about “what happens” during his vacation and out-of-school time as possible. Remember, all Aspergers children have control issues. If they feel out of control, they feel threatened.
9. Help your Aspergers adolescent find work. A part-time job is a rewarding way for an adolescent to spend some of his summer. Few things work better in building a sense of maturity, independence, and personal competence. The structure a job affords is a plus for children with Aspergers, and the extra spending money is, of course, an added bonus. While some Aspergers teens are capable of finding a job for themselves, most need guidance and encouragement. Start by defining work goals for your youngster, such as earning money or learning a new skill. Discuss the right types of jobs, based on his skills, organizational ability, and attention capability. Then help him choose where to apply. It doesn't hurt to work on interview skills; role-play business owners and managers with him. Your encouragement and support may be just what your adolescent needs to follow through on a job search.
10. If you can, try to choose the least-busy times to do any given activity. Do things early or late in the day when most individuals haven't left yet or have already gone home. If a summer vacation can wait until fall or be taken in early spring, then by all means do it at those times. If you follow these tips, for any vacation you might consider, your Aspergers youngster will be in a better state of mind to be able to enjoy him or herself, and your chances of a peaceful vacation will increase.
11. If you’re striving for an educational experience, it had better be “fun” and not boring. If not, then try to use personal methods such as search and name games to help make them fun and different.
12. Keep a calendar (but leave some blank spaces). Even during the languorous summer months, Aspergers kids need structure to feel secure and have a sense of what to expect. A simple calendar of events lets your youngster see what's coming. Fill in ahead of time a mix of major summer activities, such as the family vacation or trips to visit relatives, and casual recreational activities, such as a weekend trip to the zoo or museum. You may also want to prearrange and mark down play dates. Of course, summer should still be a time to relax, so try not to over schedule. One planned event a weekend is great, three or four can feel rushed and hectic. Leave room for down time every day, when your youngster can do whatever he wants — even nothing at all. And make time at the end of the day for the family to relax, read, and talk.
13. Loosen the reins, but stay on course. The summer months cry out for flexibility. That being said, you don't want to relinquish basic family rules and routines. It's tempting to let children stay up later in summer, and a bit of that is OK. But remember that even a little sleep deprivation can lead to irritability and meltdowns at any time of year. Try to maintain basic bedtime habits. Stick to scheduled chores, too, as well as other established behaviors. A whole day in front of the TV should remain taboo even during summer months.
14. Maybe you don't have the time or money for a vacation, or you don't want the stress of dealing with one. If you're sticking around the house this summer, don't despair, there are lots of things you can do around the house to keep your little one engaged.
15. Money is not a requirement for fun. Take your youngster to a local pool (but try to go during the off hours when there won't be as many individuals), or hold pool parties in your yard if you have your own pool, and increase your youngster's socialization skills at the same time. Look on your town calendar to see if there are any free concerts in parks, which is often the case. Some towns have outdoor movie nights in parks as well, or a local library might have them. Use the library or a cheap Netflix subscription to rent movies for the family to watch. Also, summer is a great time for festivals; if your youngster can handle the crowds and sensory stimulation, of course. Festivals do not usually cost anything to get into, and provide lots of entertainment and visual stimulation. Another idea is to go to a craft store or a store that recycles old materials and sells them for craft projects, and have an arts and crafts day.
16. One of the hardest parts for Aspergers children in summertime is the change in routine. Even if they don't particularly like school, the routine of the school day (getting up at a certain time, going to classes which are usually in the same order, coming home and doing homework, etc.) is comforting to them. They might be at a loss for what to do with their time when summer comes, and they may feel lost and adrift with no routine to anchor them. This is normal for children with Aspergers. Try to create a loose routine for your Aspergers youngster if you can. Post it on the wall as a visual reminder. Such a schedule could go something like this: "Breakfast, morning activity, lunch, afternoon activity, TV/video game period (if allowed), dinner, pre-bedtime activities. You can create a list of activities that the youngster can choose from and post those as well so that the youngster has some idea of what could or might happen, or you could decide ahead of time and post them for the week. Things like going to the park, going to the library, arts and crafts, some kind of sports if your youngster is interested, baking, reading, whatever you can come up with can be on the list, and you can rotate activities. In some ways, you could make it like a loosely structured, non-academic home school, which might make your youngster feel more comfortable and reduce behavior problems that might stem from anxiety over loss of routine.
17. Play after work. During the school year, you set a regular study time for your Aspergers youngster because it helps him get his work done. In the same way, scheduled playtimes in summer — for children and moms and dads together — will insure fun as well as family bonding. So play catch in the backyard, take a bike ride, or go out for ice cream. These relaxed times provide just the change of pace you and your youngster need to de-stress after nine months of school, or even a day's work.
18. Since most children with Aspergers are visual learners and they have a need to know what is going to happen ahead of time, social stories work well. To make a social story, you simply need to make or find pictures of the places you will be going to do and the things you will be doing and write out a story that illustrates what your daily activities will be like. The story should give the details of the daily routine so that your youngster can plan ahead and have a sense of what to expect. Talk about how you are going to get to your vacation spot, who will be coming with you, and what some of the activities will be. Make sure to think of the details when planning your trip.
19. Some Aspergers children are sensitive to the heat, and will be uncomfortable and irritable during the day when the sun is at its peak. If this is a problem, try to choose events where you can go in the evening, or go out on cloudy days.
20. Some structure during summer vacation is important. But so is unstructured downtime. Most Aspergers kids can be amazingly creative in finding ways to have fun. With your encouragement, the freedom to do nothing opens up countless possibilities to do anything. Moms and dads needn't be constant entertainment directors in the summer. It may be more helpful to express confidence in your youngster's ability to be creative and inventive — and then let him. So go ahead and schedule some activities, then get out of the way and let your youngster do what comes naturally.
21. There is nothing more stressful to a youngster with Aspergers than not knowing what is going to happen. For example, if you're at a beach, maybe schedule swimming time in the morning, a walk on the boardwalk at lunch, time to see nearby attractions or play on any available playgrounds in the afternoon… try to have the day loosely planned out a day ahead of time or at least in the morning of that day so your youngster knows what to expect. Most individuals enjoy the feeling of unstructured free time, but Aspergers children are so worried about what might happen next, and how they will cope with it, that they need to have an idea of what is happening. The schedule can be modified to some degree if you need to, but giving your youngster some advance notice of this (or planning a favored activity for after the change of plans) will have the best results. Be aware that individuals will always talk, and most individuals don't know what they're talking about.
22. Think very carefully about where you want to go. You want a place that will be Aspergers friendly. For many individuals, this means a place that is not too loud or does not offend other sensory quirks of your youngster. For example, if your kid has tactile issues with sand, you might not want to go to the beach. If they're scared of large animals, you don't want to go to the circus, for example. Choose a place that matches your youngster's interests and ability levels.
23. Use community resources. Take advantage of the summer recreational and educational opportunities that most towns offer. Find a youth sports league, or sign up for day camp. Many local recreation centers offer swimming, gymnastics, even computer classes. Encourage your artistic youngster to join a kid's theater group or sign up for community art or jewelry-making courses. In addition, visit local zoos and museums, and find out where and when summer festivals are scheduled in your area. Don't forget to add selected activities to your calendar. When you plan ahead and write it down, you're more likely to do it.
24. Whatever keeps your Aspergers kid happy at home will probably work when he is away from home. If hand-held games are acceptable distractions, then by all means take them with you.
25. You want to make sure that you very carefully choose the place that you will be staying. Whether you're staying at a hotel, a camp site, a motel, or renting a house, there are different issues to consider. If your youngster has a lot of food issues and sensitivities, you might want to choose a place where you'll have your own kitchen, so you can make your own food. This could include hotel rooms with a small kitchen area, or a rented house with kitchen facilities. If noise is a factor, you want to make sure you're not in a crowded hotel with thin walls where you can hear your neighbors fighting and the ice machine, or elevator, makes noise all night. On the other hand, if your youngster hates bugs and getting dirty, camping might not be such a good choice.
My Aspergers Child: Preventing Meltdowns