When school is out for summer, many parents appreciate that their children’s days are no longer consumed with reading, writing, and arithmetic. But for children on the autism spectrum, the changes to their daily routines and structures brought on by summer vacation often present challenges and sometimes even setbacks.
Families should certainly take some much-needed downtime. At the same time, though, they can utilize summer time as an opportunity to focus on social skills that may not come up during the typical school year.
Parents can adapt therapy techniques in personal ways
During the school year, ABA therapy programs are written to address academic triggers. Therapy techniques used during the school year can be adapted by parents for use outdoors and during summer activities to address behavioral triggers that typically don’t present themselves at school. This tailors the work done by the clinical team to new summertime situations and enhances and expands learning.
The National Research Council has advocated for evidence-based intervention therapies since its 2001 Educating Children with Autism report, which recommended that children with autism receive at least 25 hours per week of behavioral therapy all 12 months of the year, which, of course, includes the summer. In late 2019, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) agreed.
Its newest autism guidelines, Identification, Evaluation, and Management of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder, consider such therapy effective for promoting skill development and communication, especially following early detection. AAP also noted that combinations of developmental and behavioral approaches, including parent-mediated therapies, have moved from the research stage to community settings. These approaches include focused efforts to improve joint attention, social communication, and behavior.
Families often think summer might be a good time to take a break from therapy, or at least reduce hours of therapy. While the clinical community believes a child should also enjoy a break from school, using the summer to focus on strategies that strengthen social and communication skills can result in an enjoyable and beneficial summer for the entire family. A school-aged child can build social and language skills through play and other interactions with peers, which is monitored by parents.
Children with autism are often “stuck” in their ways
Many children on the spectrum struggle with cognitive rigidity, meaning they can be laser-focused on a topic of interest or inflexible about the way they do certain activities. Because of this, they can become frustrated, possibly to the point of a meltdown, when that focus, or routine activity, is changed or disrupted.
To limit that frustration during the summer months, when daily routines are often inconsistent, families can take advantage of these opportunities to work on summer programs that can have therapeutic benefits. These include socialization at baseball games, picnics, swimming, and the like, as well as building in social play, team play, and interactions with neurotypical, multi-aged children in surroundings that do not typically present themselves during the school year’s recess play.
How to apply therapy techniques at home during summer
Whether your child is in intervention therapy such as ABA or not, you can continue to develop social and communication skills with your child at home, so that when he or she returns to school, there will be no regression of skills. Moreover, the continued growth with victories over the summer will add value to an intervention therapy when restarted in the fall.
Tips to increase predictability despite a changing summer schedule:
Try to maintain a daily school-like schedule as much as possible.
While bedtime may be extended during summer, bedtime routines can be maintained. The daily structure of a school schedule can also be mimicked to reduce stress. Beginning every day by reading from a book of choice, scheduled lunch and snack breaks, and outdoor activities and timing that are similar to recess during the school year is useful. Don’t forget the importance of the arts. Setting up craft projects and scheduling time to listen to music or have a regular lesson in playing an instrument can enhance creativity while maintaining structure.
Work on social skills while maintaining opportunities to learn.
Summer provides an opportunity to work on social skill goals. You can invite your child’s friends or neighborhood children over to encourage interaction and work on social skills through an extended playdate. The same is true for enrolling your child in activities you might not have time for during the school year, such as swim, baseball, or soccer lessons.
Use visual schedules to reduce anxiety and increase predictability.
Help ease your child’s frustrations by creating a calendar with him or her. While each day does not have to be broken down in incremental lesson times as it is during school, even broad outlines of your plans for the days can ease tensions.
Using visuals and telling a social story to help your child prepare for what’s ahead, including weather-dependent alternative plans for special outdoor events or activities, will help your child envision what’s ahead. It may also be helpful to create a list with your child of preferred activities if plans need to change for whatever reason. For example, if next Saturday’s planned baseball game is rained out, you can rely on something from the agreed-upon alternative list, such as an indoor activity center or a movie, library, or bookstore.
I hope this provides some basic ideas that help you have a fun-filled summer with lots of momentum to reach your child’s optimal outcomes!
This article was featured in Issue 103 – Supporting Emotional Needs