How to Adjust to a New Summer Routine for Your Child With Autism
Summer is often hotly anticipated as a break from school and a general slowing down of life. But for children with autism and their families, summer can come with its own set of challenges. People with autism thrive on structure and routine because they feel safer when there is predictability and consistency.
So how can you make summer less stressful and more fun-filled? It can be helpful to plan ahead and talk to your child about the upcoming transition. Start helping them understand what to expect before summer starts to help ease stress and anxiety. Summer can be an enjoyable time for children with autism and their families. It’s essential to work together to create a new summer routine and prepare for the transition ahead of time.
Tips for Preparing for the Change
The school year is highly structured with a set routine your child knows and understands. The end of the school year and the start of summer can be a time of unease for a child with autism. It can help ease their stress and anxiety by laying out the expectations ahead of time, talking through how summer will look, and aiding them in preparing for the transition.
Some tips for making the adjustment to summer smoother include:
- Start talking and planning early. It can be helpful to start talking about the upcoming summer before the school year ends. Start discussing what summer will look like and how things will change, helping your child understand what to expect.
Children with autism do better if they know what comes next. You can do a countdown to summer together with a paper chain or use “X’s” on a calendar.
- Make your expectations and rules clear ahead of time. Summertime should not mean the absence of rules; children with autism need structure and rules to maintain balance. Let your child know what the summertime expectations and rules will be before summer starts.
You can begin by telling them a set number of positive behaviors that you want to see every day and then reinforcing these behaviors as they occur.
- Use social stories. Social stories are narratives that can help a child with autism gain a better understanding of social norms and appropriate communication.
A social story depicts situations and how people deal with them. These can help children with autism visualize how social concepts work and can be used to better prepare them for summertime activities.
- Prepare for new experiences and places ahead of time. Children with autism can enjoy many of the traditional summertime activities, such as time outside in the sun, barbecues, and fireworks, if they are prepared ahead of time.
It is essential to understand what your child’s sensory sensitivities are so you can properly prepare. Summer can come with a lot of sensory overloads. If you can introduce and prepare your child for the sights, smells, textures, and sounds that they might experience ahead of time, this can help in the moment.
Take your child to places they will experience in the summer, such as a summer camp, before they start there. This can help to ease the transition when it is time.
Building a New Summer Routine
Summertime generally means a relaxing of the normal routine and more downtime. For children with autism, however, structure, schedule, and routine are important – even in the summer. Here are some suggestions for building a new summer routine:
- Use visual cues. It can be helpful to use visuals, such as a calendar. You can get as detailed as your child would like with this labeling. You can include typical days and holidays.
An outline for a typical day’s schedule could consist of mealtimes, wakeup and bedtimes, and more. Some children will benefit from pictures as well.
A timer or alarm can also be helpful as a visual aid for children. You can set the timer for 10 minutes, for example, after telling your child that you need to leave in that time. This can provide a visual cue telling your child that when it goes off, it is time to leave the house.
- Prepare and discuss alternative plans. Summertime activities do not always go as planned. There will be times you will have to change something that you have discussed and planned for ahead of time. The weather can cancel outdoor plans, for instance, or the pool or story time could be full or booked.
It can be helpful to have both a plan A and a plan B for special summertime activities if you have to switch gears. Having two prepared plans can also help your child to be flexible and less anxious when things must change.
- Stick to a schedule and routine. It can be easy to fall into a less structured routine and schedule in the summer. But this can be tricky for a child with autism. Sticking to a regular and predictable routine can help keep anxiety levels to a minimum.
For example, continue to keep up with the same bedtime and waking time each day. It can also be helpful to keep up with your typical house rules as changing or relaxing these can also throw your child off and potentially overload or overwhelm them. Keeping expectations clear can keep things running smoothly.
- Allow for extra time. It can be beneficial to build extra time into your schedule as well since things can often take longer than expected or not start directly at the appointed time.
Sometimes it can even be helpful to use “after” and “before” cues in your schedule instead of specific times. For example, you could say get dressed after breakfast.
- Use positive reinforcement. Children benefit from positive reinforcement for desired behaviors. A sticker or reward chart can be a good tool that allows your child to earn specific rewards after completing a certain number of tasks or a set of behaviors. Reinforcing good behaviors is much more effective than punishing negative ones.
Making the Most Out of Summer
The summer can be a rewarding and fun time for everyone. To make the most out of it, discuss summer options with your child early and let them have some say in your plans. There are often opportunities in the summer that do not exist other times of the year, such as story times or music in the parks, pools or water play, and more time outside.
Allowing your child to have some decision-making power will help ease their nervousness over the transition. It will give them something to look forward to and a sense of ownership in the new schedule, making them more willing to work with you.
There are also numerous options for summer care, camps, and programs tailored for children with autism that can provide a fun experience for your child and a break for you as a parent. These opportunities can help children with autism build and expand on their social skills and provide the structure, routine, and schedule children with autism thrive on. These summer programs can often offer traditional summertime activities presented in a way that supports and nurtures your child with autism.
Why Is Classroom Routine Important for Children on the Autism Spectrum? (May 2020). Autism Spectrum Australia.
Social Stories for Kids With Autism — the Ultimate Guide. (November 2020). Autism Parenting Magazine. Sensory Issues. (2022). Autism Speaks Inc.