Summer break is here, which often leads to increased downtime for our kids. While this break may be beneficial for some, it can also pose new challenges for many children with autism who rely on predictable routines. Therefore, as you head into the summer, here are several strategies and resources that will help keep your child’s break as structured as possible:

  1. Make things visual. Create a summer calendar or picture schedule and post it where your child can see. Add activities and events as soon as they get scheduled. Families may wish to investigate the do2learn website, which is a great resource for creating visual schedules. Use the format that is easiest for everyone in the family to understand at a glance. Pictures are often easiest, and kids may enjoy selecting the pictures (including emojis) for each activity. For those who are more tech-savvy, activities and events can be added to a cellphone or electronic calendar. Reminders can be set at varying intervals in order to alert your child to what’s happening the next day or cue when he/she/they will need to leave the house.
  2. Create daily routines. Although it can be difficult, especially with summer travel, try to create a consistent routine for your child. This includes keeping the same mealtime or bedtime routines throughout the summer, as well as scheduling routine summer activities (e.g., going to the park at the same time every day). This sense of predictability will likely increase your child’s overall comfort level. Highlight changes to the schedule and, when needed, generate a new daily/weekly schedule when the routine changes, like for vacations and trips. The new schedule should indicate what stays the same and what is different.
  3. Prepare your child for upcoming plans. Preview any known changes to your child’s summer schedule well in advance. For example, if your family is taking a trip or attending a social gathering, make sure to prepare your child for what to expect (e.g., when/where, who will be there, what he/she/they can do if feeling stressed or overwhelmed). Families are also encouraged to incorporate the use of social stories, which can be used to preview upcoming events using a visual format. Social stories are used to help reduce your child’s stress or anxiety by making unfamiliar situations feel more predictable. There are many social story templates already available online.
  4. Limit screen time and get outdoors. Try to find an outdoor activity that your child enjoys (e.g., swinging, playing tag, riding a bike, swimming) which will allow him/her to burn off some energy each day. Exercise is important for both physical and mental health. It may help to list these activities on the daily schedule to occur before screen time. If your child likes every aspect of screens (such as movies, you-tube videos, games), help them decide what specific activity they will play and when they will play it (for example, watching you-tube after the walk, watching a movie after dinner).
  5. Reward positive behavior. Generating or maintaining a simple behavior chart over the summer can also create a sense of structure. Identify 2-3 positive behaviors that you would like to prioritize over the summer (e.g., cleaning up after play, clearing the table, washing hair) and reward those behaviors when they occur. Here are some tips for creating a positive behavior chart. Reward the behavior you observe before giving another command (such as “Thanks for picking up your cars. Please pick up the blocks”).

ABOUT THE EXPERTS

Meagan Wills Meagan Wills, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (CASD) at Children's National. She specializes in the diagnostic assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Jessica Smith is a clinical research assistant at Children's National Hospital.

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