Stomping on Sandcastles: Summer for a Child with Autism
By Darlene Sweetland, Ph.D. and Ron Stolberg, Ph.D.
Authors of “Teaching Kids to Think: Raising Confident, Independent, and Thoughtful Children in an Age of Instant Gratification”
Springtime is in the air. The days are getting longer, the weather getting warmer, and kids getting excited for the end to the school year. An unstructured summer, however, is a daunting prospect for parents of a child living with autism.
By the end of the school year, many kids begin to lose interest in school, become less motivated, and dream of summer. However, for children with autism the daily routine of school is often comforting and predictable. All year the children have been building peer relationships, and teachers and aids have been building a better understanding of each child’s specific needs and the end of the school year can bring anxiety.
Here are some tips for parents transitioning their autistic children to the summer and some tips for families who may have the wonderful opportunity to interact with autistic children during the summer break.
The Summer Swing Transition
- At the start of summer consider having a ‘Summer Transition Plan’ which replicates the structure of a school day and provides the opportunity for your child to have a predictable schedule with people who are familiar. This plan should replicate a traditional school day as much as possible. Maintaining the same wake time, meal structure, and familiar faces will make the transition out of school easier.
- Parents of a child with autism know continued structure is very important over the summer. Summer can be a great time to increase important supports such as Occupational Therapy, social skills groups with a summer theme, and specific skill building ABA interventions. Maybe there are a few behaviors that are almost where you want them to be, summer is a great time to solidify those behaviors and begin working on new accomplishments.
- School is full of social interactions, even if your child doesn’t outwardly seek them out. When summer comes, children with autism are often fine with the reduction of peer interaction, but continued interaction with a number of kids is important. Here are some ideas to set your family up for success:
- Plan a short time at each activity and extend the time as your child is comfortable, rather than planning a long play date.
- Have an “out” at each location where your child can take a break in a comfortable setting.
- Bring some of your child’s “comforts”, such as sensory items, iPad, snacks, etc.
Gifts to the Community
Children with autism are gifts to the community and can be amazing teachers; they show how talents and strengths are seen in unlimited ways. Families whose children have schoolmates with autism can use the summer as an opportunity to foster friendships while teaching empathy, compassion, and understanding.
- Make sure to point out the gifts of the kids with special needs you see in the community. It is natural for people to notice differences rather than similarities. Help your kids see the amazing talents of kids with special needs. Is the child a fast runner, great climber, very knowledgeable, have a great smile?
- Take the opportunity to have a discussion with your children about the kids with special needs they know at school. The conversation should be about how to show empathy, patience, and understanding of these children. Help them take advantage of opportunities to interact, say “Hi,” or spend some time over summer with one of these classmates.
- It is likely that your family will see kids with autism or other special needs during your summer activities. Take the opportunity to encourage your kids to be patient and understanding. Our nephew with autism loves to step on and destroy sand castles at the beach. It is an amazing experience for all when children see this and make more for him to jump on, rather than get mad. It becomes a game, is social, and can really be fun for everyone.
Summer can be a challenge for all families, but even more so if you have a child with autism. These tips can help you build a smoother transition to the summer months, in which we hope your smiles and sandcastles will be plenty.
Darlene Sweetland, PhD and Ronald Stolberg, PhD are authors of the best-selling and award winning book “Teaching Kids to Think: Raising Confident, Independent, and Thoughtful Children in an Age of Instant Gratification”.
Darlene Sweetland, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist with twenty years of experience specializing in work with children, adolescents, and young adults. She is a graduate of the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University and currently maintains a private practice in Del Mar, California.
Ron Stolberg, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and an associate professor for the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. He was the psychologist for the hit reality TV show Survivor, and is now the head psychologist for the World Surf League.