As the school year starts to wind down and summer vacation gets closer, for many children it is a time when their excitement is increasing and they are looking forward to months of fun and relaxation. This amount of excitement and anticipation isn’t shared by all though; for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and their families, summer vacation can be a stressful and anxious time (Saludo, 2016). The good news is that those summer months can be made easier to enjoy for children with ASD and their loved ones. In order to understand how to make summer vacation the best experience possible, here we look at causes of summertime stress and what strategies are available to help prevent and alleviate it.
When summer vacation starts, there are a lot of changes that begin to impact the daily experiences of kids, and these changes are especially impactful for children with ASD. The highly structured time of their school days is suddenly not in place for them, and the predictability they relied on for the past nine months is gone (Saludo, 2016). Children understood what was expected of them during the school year, but during the summer and away from the classrooms there is a whole new set of expectations for them. Along with those new expectations, they are also quickly introduced to new places, new activities, and new people (Arky, n.d.). Here are some ideas that might help ease summer concerns.
- Discuss the transition ahead of time and maintain a structured schedule
One step that you can take to help your child adjust to this transition is discussing it with them ahead of time and giving them time to prepare for the schedule change (Saludo, 2016). This conversation can help them to be aware of any major adjustments, and as a result, help relieve them of some of the nervousness that a sudden change to their routine can cause (Saludo, 2016).
When our kids transition from the highly structured setting of the school day to the days of summer vacation, the days are more likely to be much less structured, but they don’t need to be. It is important to remember that children appreciate structured schedules; this is especially true for children with ASD. Keeping their days well-structured allows them to be more comfortable when they rely on predictability. Have them wake up and go to bed at the same times each day, even if it’s a weekend (Arky, n.d.). Set their meals to be at the same time as often as possible. By keeping their schedules organized with precise times, they could still have things such as tech time or TV time each day, but only at certain times during the day and only for a specific amount of time (Arky, n.d.). Also, much like how your child may have different classes scheduled on different days during the school year, you can do a similar thing during the summer (Arky, n.d.; Saludo, 2016). For example, every Monday at 3:00 p.m. can be the weekly trip to the library and on Tuesday and Friday afternoons it might be scheduled trips to the nearby park.
- State your set of expectations and stick to them
Children may think that they know what is best for themselves and that they don’t need rules, but in reality, they appreciate rules and expectations much like how they appreciate structured schedules (Arky, n.d.). Kids will try to test the adults in their lives to see what they can get away with, but the structure and expectations put on them by those who care about them help to keep them feeling safe and comfortable. This is true for both children that are neurotypical and for children with ASD. Start the summer break with two or three of the positive behaviors you want to see most from your children, and consistently reinforce those behaviors throughout the summer (Arky, n.d.). How to reinforce a child’s behavior is different for every child, but the most important thing to do is make sure that they understand they are doing great when they are doing what is expected of them. In addition to positive behaviors, your children will demonstrate some negative behaviors too from time to time. When your children do display negative behaviors, you should talk with a BCBA to get a better understanding as to why your child is exhibiting these behaviors, and how you should respond to it.
- Plan activities, and have your child contribute ideas
When planning the many different activities that will help build your summer, invite your child to contribute their ideas as well (Saludo, 2016). See if there are any activities they would like to participate in and enjoy during their vacation time. Letting your child have some say in what their summer will look like can help give them a sense of ownership with their schedules, and by doing so they will likely be more willing to go along with the schedule. For parts you contribute, make a list of the things your child enjoys and schedule activities that connect with those interests (Saludo, 2016).
- Prepare for new experiences through practice and discussion
Summer is an ideal time for many things such as fireworks, cookouts, and swimming pools; although your child may have needs that not all their peers have, this doesn’t mean that anyone in your family needs to miss out on these opportunities. Many children with ASD have sensory needs, and these needs don’t mean they need to avoid summer activities that may be unfamiliar to them. Some experiences, such as fireworks and barbecues, can come with loud noises and strong smells, but you can prepare your child for these sensory experiences ahead of time so that their senses aren’t overloaded when it comes time for the event (Arky, n.d.; Saludo, 2016). To get ready for the Fourth of July fireworks, help expose them to loud sounds as July 4th gets closer. This might mean small fireworks at other events before the 4th. Or it may include watching and listening to fireworks videos online so that they can see what fireworks are like, and hear them, but not having them experience them in-person just yet. If you are preparing your child to feel comfortable at a swimming pool, it might be best to have them feel comfortable at home with water by using a kiddie pool, and by making sure they understand it will likely be noisy at the pool.
- Make sure to have support for yourself too
Although you’ll be spending a lot of time putting supports in place for your child to make sure they’re having a good summer, you should remember to have support for yourself too. Being a parent of a child with ASD can leave a person feeling lonely and stretched thin at times. It can be difficult to see your child’s neurotypical peers playing together and going places throughout the summer, and you see their parents spending time together while their children are off enjoying summer (Arky, n.d.). Being a superhero of a parent can be exhausting if you don’t give yourself the breaks you deserve. This summer, you should let yourself hire a sitter so that you can spend a few hours out of the house and just relax or catch up with your friends that you haven’t gotten to spend enough time with lately (Arky, n.d.). If getting a sitter isn’t an easy option, invite your friends over, whether they have kids or not, so that you can have some extra company around that you usually don’t (Arky, n.d.). You can still be there for your child, but you’ll have friends with you to connect with and be supported by. You deserve to feel supported by a network of friends and family members.
By practicing these strategies of planning ahead and scheduling, having expectations, and making sure to have support in place for both your child and yourself, the goal is for you and your family to have the best summer vacation possible. You all deserve a great experience, and by making use of the strategies here and applying them to your family in the best way that works specifically for you and your loved ones, this can hopefully be your best summer yet.
Arky, B. (n.d.). Strategies for a successful summer break. Retrieved from
Saludo, S. (June 9, 2016). Autism parents: Making the change from school to summer.