Summer vacation, with its long days and seemingly endless unfilled hours, is the highlight of the year for many children. But for those kids who crave predictability, like many on the autism spectrum, it can be difficult to leave the structure of the day school behind.
Whether a child is staying home for the summer, moving to daycare or headed to camp, all of these transitions can cause anxiety for children with autism.
“If your child has a really hard time transitioning, then you just have to accept that the first week or so will be hard on them, and it will be stressful for you,” says Mary Rosswurm, Executive Director of Little Star Center, which offers Applied Behavior Analysis therapy at centers across the state. “But it’s also important to remember that this is summer vacation. Don’t go in thinking that you’re going to get a lot of goals accomplished; just get the child through safe and happy.” Fortunately, there are many things parents can do to help make this transition period go more smoothly.
Prepare in advance
Make sure your child knows that summer vacation is about to begin and exactly what that means, including that he or she won’t see school friends and teachers for several weeks. Countdown calendars can help children keep track of exactly when this change will happen.
“Most students on the spectrum like the idea of knowing what’s happening next, so having a plan and giving them as much information as possible up front can help,” says Marisa Gill, Director of School for Independence Academy, an Indianapolis school serving students in grades 5 through 12 with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome.
If your child will be transitioning to another environment, visiting that place ahead of time can help ease any anxiety. Drive there together, go in the building and find where he or she will spend their days. Meeting any teachers or staff your child will interact with is also a good idea.
Set a summer schedule
For kids who thrive on a routine, setting a schedule for the summer right away can help avoid stress and confusion. Write down when he or she will be woken up, your morning routine, outings that will repeat each week and, of course, bedtime.
Rosswurm, who is also the mother of two adult sons, including one with autism, encourages parents to write out or use pictures to depict the family’s schedule and post it somewhere prominently. “From day one, let them know what your expectations are and establish boundaries,” she says. “But parents also need to give themselves permission that everything doesn’t need to be perfect. Set yourself up for success instead of failure.”
When creating a family schedule, try to alternate new or not-so-enjoyable tasks, like chores, with those that the child really likes. Also, remember to include daily quiet time to give everyone a chance to recharge. Indianapolis mom Heather Turner, whose 11-year-old son Brandon is on the spectrum, says, “We schedule reading, word search or coloring time. That way we have some planned quiet time every day.”
It can also be a good idea to prepare a child for situations in which plans might change, such as a rainy day, and offer possible alternatives in advance.
Anticipate clothing challenges
The move to hotter weather can bring up issues for kids on the spectrum who are particularly attached to cold-weather clothing.
“It could be a sweater that they love or a warm hat they wear all the time. Having to change what we wear can be a difficult part of the transition to summer,” Gill notes. “Our goal is to get them to a place where they can determine by themselves if they need a jacket or not, but that takes patience.”
Ultimately, planning and preparation will help ease the change to summer, but the transition may still be difficult for both child and parent. Go slowly, offer lots of information and remember, school will start again before you know it!