Summer Tips for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Simple steps for having a fun and productive summer with your child

About 1 in 36 American children are somewhere on the autism spectrum, and if your child is one of them you’ve learned how to address their special needs in education, family life and even recreation. With school out for summer, children need something to keep them occupied, and the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder could use extra help while their children are home as the change in routine and sensory overload can present unique challenges. Behaven Kids, one of Nebraska’s leading providers of services for children and adolescents who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, mental health-related issues and behavioral difficulties, offer some tips for parents of children with autism for managing the free time while the sun is shining and schools are closed for the summer.

1.      Keep to a Schedule at Home

You won’t be out and about every day and much of the summer will be spent with the kids in your own house. Because of the special focus kids with autism have on regularity, it’s really important to keep a routine that takes the place of the school schedule. Your summer schedule might involve setting the alarm for 7 a.m., then having breakfast at 7:30, then a morning playtime at 8, and so on. Keep a regular set of meal times, bed times and chore schedules. The structure predictability gives your household routine helps keep the peace and gives you tools to manage the disorder of an offseason summer schedule.

2.      Plan Ahead

Children with autism feel a need for structure and predictability that goes beyond most kids. You and your child can get ready for summer months in advance by planning your time together. Things like trips, visits from family members and play dates can be disruptive for children who need predictability, so involving them in advance planning helps limit the stress.

3. Use Social Stories

If you’re familiar with social stories, you can use this approach to help your child understand what’s going to happen on your trip, or when friends come for a visit, in terms that are easy to digest. Even something as simple as showing a child with delayed reading pictures of playground equipment at the park can ease apprehension and make things go much more smoothly. This approach was developed in the early 1990s to help children with autism take ownership of the world around them with simple narrative structures. This often gives a child with autism a feeling of predictability and control, reduces stress from breaks in routine and tends to make novel situations work out better.

4. Set Realistic Expectations

Kids on the autism spectrum have a wide range of abilities, and every kid has a different set of triggers and limits. Try to set realistic expectations for what your child can handle, and don’t push harder than they can comfortably manage. If, for instance, your child has a hard time sitting still for long periods, a 12-hour road trip to visit family might have to be broken up over two days with lots of rest periods to keep everybody on an even keel. Aim for fun all summer long, but don’t set your sights higher than you and your child can reasonably hit.

5. Allow for Extra Time

Managed expectations dovetails with a larger idea: extra time. Kids with autism generally need patience and that takes time. Whatever you’re planning this summer, try to build extra time for it. Allow extra drive time for fidgeting passengers, extra rest stops along the way and extra time at each stop. Instead of taking two stops on a long drive, plan four. Instead of 15 minutes per stop, allow 30. Set up hourlong meal breaks, rather than half-hour and so on.

6. Reach Out Across Support Networks

Wherever you are, you’re not alone. The unique challenges of raising children with autism spectrum disorder encourages parents to forge bonds with each other, and to keep strong ties with family and friends. Don’t be shy about asking for help when things get overwhelming and remember to be there for other parents of kids with autism.

7. Have a Backup Plan Ready to Go

No plan ever happens exactly how you thought it would, and having a ready backup can be a lifesaver. For example, say your road trip to the grandparents’ place has to get rescheduled because of events outside of your control. A sudden disruption like that could spell trouble. If, however, you’ve got a backup plan like going to the state fair, you’ve already half solved the issue without a hiccup.

8. Make Annual Traditions

Nothing brings a family together like traditions, and for children with autism traditions can be the stuff of great childhood memories. You almost can’t go too far here. Make a tradition out of getting chili dogs on the last day of school, Fourth of July on the beach, sister’s summer birthday camping in the woods, the list goes on. Traditions are reliable, trustworthy and soothing events that your child with autism can look forward to all year and remember fondly when summer is over and school is back in session.

9. Prepare and Maintain a Structured Routine

Children with autism thrive on routine and structure, as it provides them with a sense of security and predictability. Prepare a visual schedule or a daily planner outlining activities, mealtimes and transitions. Stick to the schedule as much as possible, but also allow for flexibility to accommodate unexpected changes. Consistency and predictability will help your child feel more comfortable and reduce anxiety.

10. Create a Sensory Friendly Environment

Summer often brings new sensory experiences, such as the feeling of sand, water or sunscreen. For children with autism who may be sensitive to certain sensations, it’s important to create a sensory-friendly environment. Provide your child with options for sensory input, such as a designated quiet space or a sensory bin with preferred textures. Sunglasses, hats, and ear defenders can also help to minimize discomfort in bright or noisy settings.

With careful planning, understanding, and a few strategies in place, parents of children with autism can help make the summer season enjoyable, less stressful and provide their child with a summer filled with positive experiences and growth.

Behaven Kids is a provider of services for children and adolescents who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, mental health-related issues and behavioral difficulties. The company provides a full range of therapy, counseling and care services to help children, parents and families at three locations in Nebraska. Behaven Kids has more than 70 professionals with a variety of credentials and expertise, including board certified behavioral analysts, licensed behavior specialists, licensed mental health practitioners and certified clinical trauma professionals. Behaven Kids was founded in 2000. More information is available at and on social media @behavenkids.