Surviving the Summer with Kids on the Autism Spectrum: Tips for Parents

Keeping kids busy - and out of trouble - during the summer is a challenging task for any parent. But doing the same with children on the autism spectrum is even more difficult.

Parents need to consider the unique needs, capabilities and interests of their children with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) – all the while keeping them busy and pushing them towards their behavioral and social goals.

Here are some ideas on how to achieve this balance:

1. An afternoon movie at a theater: AMC Entertainment offers special movie showings for families with AS and HFA kids.  The lights stay on, the volume is kid-friendly, and they can get up, move around, and talk without being shushed by irritated movie-goers.  It’s like home, only with a bigger screen.

2. Day camp: If you live in a larger metropolitan area, there may be day camps and other structured activities designed especially for kids with AS and HFA. These camps provide kids with some of the same routines they are used to in the classroom while allowing them to participate in activities lie camping, swimming, arts and crafts. Check with your youngster's teacher, case manager, or physician for recommendations. Look for a day camp staffed by counselors that have had extensive training with AS and HFA kids. A counselor who has not been trained to work with such kids may inadvertently trigger a meltdown, and not know how to handle one in progress.

3. Don't 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. Maintain basic bedtime habits, and stick to scheduled chores, as well as other established behaviors. A whole day of playing video games should remain taboo even during summer vacation.

4. Firehouse fun: Call the local fire department and ask if you can stop by with your youngster for a quick visit to see the fire trucks and meet the firemen. This is a great way to learn about fire safety and introduce your youngster to rescue workers. Firemen are good with kids, and will spend time talking to your youngster about what to do in an emergency. Also, take pictures of your visit and turn it into a social story.

5. Fun with mud: With the warmer weather, feel free to enjoy some “messy” activities outside that will help your youngster to integrate her senses. Spray an outside table with shaving cream and let her smear it around. Fill a bin with rice and dig your fingers in. Create a mud pit to roll around in. All you need afterwards is a hose! This type of “sensory-play” has many benefits for kids on the spectrum.

6. Get back to nature: Take a trip to a sandy beach. Go on a nature walk. Have a picnic lunch in a shady grove.  Collect pinecones, acorns, branches, and other natural artifacts. When you get home, prepare a social story or a nature craft with your youngster.  Give her some glue, strong cardboard and glitter, and show her how to make a leafy collage of her park souvenirs.  Or, supply funny eyes and pipe cleaners, and see who can make the creepiest pinecone monster.  

7. Go to a science museum: Science and natural history museums offer many fun activities for AS and HFA kids. Yearly memberships are often inexpensive, and allow you the freedom to visit whenever you like.  Also, you’ll receive notification of special events.  Ask your curator what the quietest hours are for the museum, and plan your visit accordingly.

8. Go to the library: Reading to your youngster is an essential tool for broadening his vocabulary.  Young people on the autism spectrum benefit greatly from story time, as it teaches them the words they need in order to better communicate.  Have an early dinner, and visit your library during the quiet evening hours.

9. Help your AS or HFA teenager find a job: A part-time job is a rewarding way for a teen to spend some of the summer. Few things work better in building a sense of maturity, independence, and personal competence. The structure a job affords is a plus for teens on the autism spectrum, and the extra spending money is an added bonus. While some AS and HFA teens are capable of finding a job for themselves, most need guidance and encouragement.  Start by defining work goals (e.g., earning money, learning a new skill). Discuss the right types of jobs based on your child’s skills, organizational ability, and attention capability. Then help him choose where to apply. It helps to work on interview skills, so role-play business owners and managers. Your encouragement and support may be just what your youngster needs to follow through on a job search.

10. Keep a calendar of events: Even during the relaxed summer months, AS and HFA 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 (e.g., a family vacation, trips to visit relatives) and casual recreational activities (e.g., weekend trip to the zoo). For younger boys and girls, you may want to prearrange and mark down playdates.

11. Keep the education process going: Education doesn’t have to stop just because school is out for the summer. Build time into your youngster's daily schedule to research, experiment, and investigate a topic that interests him. If he loves video games, challenge him to design one of his own. If he is fascinated by butterflies, summer is a great time to start an insect collection.

12. Make a tent: Pull out all your blankets and chairs and have the tent overtake your living room or backyard. Tent play can occupy your youngster for hours. It’s also be a great resource to soothe an autistic youngster, providing a hide-out or quiet place. Place a bean bag inside along with books and a flashlight.

13. Movie night at home: A home cinema experience is a great way to get your AS and HFA kids out of the sun for a couple of hours and allow some down time. Instead of just plopping down in front of the TV, make it a real production with homemade movie tickets, a big bucket of popcorn, and pillows and blankets in front of the flat screen. It will seem like a special event in your youngster’s day with these little extras.

14. Music: Music therapy is an essential part of special education classrooms.  All kids enjoy moving to background music.  Encourage your AS or HFA youngster to express himself through dance by leading him in musical games (e.g., Freeze Dance, Musical Chairs).

15. Record the summer’s events: Bring a camera on all your summer ventures, and end each week by assembling photo album pages to go into your “summer memory book.”  AS and HFA kids in particular will benefit from the visual reminder of all the fun things they did while on vacation.

16. Social-skills groups: As the pressures of the school year ease up during the summer, this can be a great time to get involved with other families of AS and HFA kids in your location. Join - or form - a social-skills group, which helps “special needs” kids practice specific social skills within the context of a play group, field trip, or activity. Many AS and HFA kids desperately want to have friends and participate in social activities, but lack the direct understanding of how to do so. A social-skills group, made up of other kids on the spectrum, is a safe place to learn and practice social skills without fear of rejection or ridicule.

17. Swim: All young people love the pool, and AS and HFA youngsters are no exception.  Visit your local city council for a list of recreational pools in your area, including swim lessons.  Take advantage of pool time to practice some aquatic therapies, which are great for kids on the spectrum.

18. Swinging: Swings are beneficial for physical, social and cognitive development – and they offer certain therapeutic benefits (e.g., promote movement and perceptual skills, spatial awareness, general fitness, social interaction, mental representation, sensory integration, vestibular development, and so on.). If your youngster has trouble with crowds, visit the park in the morning.

19. Take a train ride: Most kids love trains. Make a day of it and ride the train with your AS or HFA youngster. Choose departure times during non-commuting hours so you can get a seat next to a window and deal with fewer crowds. Bring along treats to keep your youngster engaged. If you don’t have commuter trains in your city, check out other public transportation options.

20. Use your local resources: Take advantage of the summer recreational and educational opportunities that most cities offer. Find a youth sports league, or sign up for day camp. Many local rec 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 basket-making courses. Find out where and when summer festivals are scheduled.

21. Wash the car: Sometimes, what grown-ups consider as chores can be fun activities for AS and HFA children. Running a “car wash” may be at the top of the list.  You supply the buckets, suds, and cloths, and your son or daughter can get busy while you supervise in the shade.  Tell the neighbors, and invite them to participate.

22. Water fun: You can quickly create your own water park in the backyard for an afternoon of thrills. For a younger child whose tolerance is low for water play, consider sitting him on the lawn and using your finger and a hose to create a variety of sprays for him to experience. For more active kids, you can use a variety of “water rides” (e.g., small splash pool, garden sprinkler to run through, water table, beach ball sprinkler, etc.). If you water your lawn in the early morning or evening hours, send your children outside to play tag under the watery sprays.  If you’re feeling adventurous, fill up a few water balloons and show them how to play Hot Potato.

23. Lastly, take care of yourself:  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.

When a youngster is on the spectrum, you can make two safe predictions about summertime: He’s likely to get bored easily and often, and he's almost as likely to become demanding of your time, attention and patience. The way to manage summer's lack of structure is to strike the right balance between free time and planned time. Use the guidelines above to light your way.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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