Summer is here, bring on the sunshine! While it has its perks, this season also can bring new challenges for families whose loved ones must adjust to a new schedule.
Without the structure of school and other programs that take place throughout the rest of the year, families can be left scrambling to fill in unstructured time for their child. Fortunately, there are many ways to make the most of this time that can be beneficial for everyone involved. Check out the following suggestions from Milestones Early Intervention/School Age Coordinator Nathan Morgan:
Schedule your day. Using visual schedules can be helpful for anyone, whether they are neurotypical or on the autism spectrum. Hang a colorful calendar showing when any special activities are planned. Update any written or picture schedules to include time slots for the unstructured time. Break activities into smaller tasks as appropriate. For tips on how to create schedules and visual supports, checkout the Milestones Visual Supports Toolkit.
Explore new hobbies/activities. The free time during summer break can provide a great opportunity to explore new interests with your child. Baking muffins or other treats can be a great activity to spend time with your child, develop daily living skills, and also has a yummy final result! Baking has plenty of steps which can be made into a visual schedule and can be broken down into tasks which are developmentally appropriate for your child.
You also could try new arts and crafts activities such as painting pictures of scenery in your backyard or coloring with sidewalk chalk. The weather outside also provides a great opportunity to engage in developmentally appropriate sports and athletic activities such as swimming, baseball and nature walks.
Maintain the “bookends” of your child’s day. It is easy to fall out of established bedtime routines over the long summer break. It can be okay to stay up an extra hour now and again, but drastic changes in sleep routines can be difficult to revert back to when school starts back. If sleep routines must change, begin gradually returning to school bedtime routines – consult with your behavior and sleep specialists if you need help identifying a plan that works best for your child.
Keep studying. In the same vein as the aforementioned tip, maintaining some IEP goals and activities over the summer can help minimize academic regressions. Your child may be enrolled in an Extended School Year (ESY) or Summer Camp program which may address these goals. Even if your child is enrolled in such a program, you could integrate a story time, math practice, or other brief academic activities into their daily routine. Since it is summer, you could even plan additional activities to enrich the learning experience. For example, if your child is reading Harriet the Spy, they could write in their own secret journal about their day.
Every day can be a holiday. Create special daily events to keep things interesting. Host “Meatless Mondays” and make special grilled cheese sandwiches. What about “Taco Tuesday” or “Ice Cream Social Saturday” to encourage your picky eater to try new combinations of food? Inviting friends and family can make your event extra special. They could even bring food and help with the cleanup. Aside from activities at home, many attractions such as movie theaters and museums will offer special discounts or even sensory-friendly days. See our autism calendar for fun summer options!
Go on a special interest adventure. Most children with autism have some pretty exciting special interests. If your child likes Thomas the Tank Engine, consider going on a trolley or train ride around your city. Obsessed with Pokémon? Try going to a museum or aquarium and figuring which Pokémon the animals might be – most of those critters are based on real life animals, after all. Passionate about Dora the Explorer? Create your own treasure map and explore your backyard, a familiar nature trail, or a metropark.
Get a summer job. For older teens and adults, summer can be a great time to volunteer or explore other job skill building opportunities, especially if your child has not enrolled in any summer courses through their high school or college. For example, many animal shelters are eager to have dog walkers this time of year. Your area may also have a community garden which could promote social skills through collaborative interactions with others in your neighborhood.
Chores are life skill training! During the school year, parents often do many household tasks for their teen to save time and avoid a struggle, but the summer can be an opportunity for your young adult to practice and master daily living skills. Instead of doing the laundry for your child, have your child participate in ways they are able to. Can they separate the whites and darks? Measure the detergent? Individuals on the autism spectrum often do well with visual instructions — so have your teen write down or take pictures of the steps as you show them how to do the task. Provide them a structure to follow that may stick with them in the future.
Classes can be more fun outside of school. Seek out opportunities for classes based on interests of your young adult. If they enjoy art projects, sign them up for a craft-based class at a local art store. Perhaps they could get formalized training as a life guard or babysitter through your local recreation center. It’s a double win for everyone: they have a positive structured activity during their summer, while they are developing skills toward future work opportunities!
Develop independent leisure skills by intentionally building them into their schedule. Everyone needs to know how to appropriately occupy themselves for short periods of time — and parents know this skill can be a lifesaver as they navigate their day-to-day activities. Begin to teach your teen to choose positive activities to do on their own during short breaks in their day. Provide them a choice of activities, praise their efforts and set expectations of time allotted.
“You have 15 minutes until we leave for swimming.”
“You can play solitaire on your phone or you can read a part of your book.”
Nathan Morgan, MSSA, LSW, completed professional internships at Milestones Autism Resources and Achievement Centers for Children. Prior to returning to Milestones as the Early Intervention/School Age Coordinator, Nathan was employed full-time as an Early Childhood Mental Health Social Worker at Achievement Centers, where he provided consultation and therapeutic services to young children and their caregivers. Nathan also is an autism self-advocate who has shared his experiences on panels, at events, and on the local news. He is passionate about teaching and Autism-related research.