As the end of the school year approaches us, here are some tips for parents of children with autism (or any child who needs support with transitions) when trying to support their son or daughter move from school to summer.
1. Preview – Talk to your kids beforehand about what changes they can expect. Show them pictures of new places and people, like camp counselors. Visit any new locations with your child ahead of time so nothing is a surprise. Skype with friends and family to see where you'll be staying when you go on summertime visits. Check out the websites of summer camp facilities, hotels, attractions or city going to visit. Tour summer day or sleep away camp grounds ahead of time. If that's not possible, you may want to contact places to see if they have any DVDs that depict their facilities.
2. Schedule – Review the calendar with your child so that he or she knows when everything is happening over the course of the summer. You could create a calendar counting days left until camp or travel date. Pictures are often useful when trying to help a child understand a coming sequence of events. Develop daily, weekly or monthly calendars to show what activities will occur during the summer. If making a daily calendar of activities, break activities down step by step. This will help later when trying to understand where child is having any difficulties.
3. Adjusting to a new routine – Discuss new routines with the child. Encourage your son or daughter to ask questions. If possible, practice travel in advance.
4. Sensory concerns – Take your child’s sensory preferences into account. Sunscreen is important during summer months. Maybe rubbing sunscreen on your child bothers him or her due to heightened tactile sensitivities. Try a spray instead. Perhaps camp activities or traveling may be noisy and over-stimulating. Consider packing noise-canceling headphones.
5. Unstructured time – For some children, it'is important to create schedules even for leisure and unstructured times. Review it with your child and tweak as needed. Keep in mind that your child may need direct instruction for learning how to handle unstructured times. Ask teachers and/or therapists for ideas about areas and skills to address. Download iPhone and iPad apps that help build child’s abilities. Create a list of options for child to choose from during unstructured time.
6. Suggestions from teachers & therapists – Before break, talk to your child’s teachers to discuss ways to build on skills your child has learned throughout the school year. Perhaps you can request a large homework packet for the summer, strategies to generalize these skills in the community or resources for exploring the curriculum further. Speak to your children's therapists to ask for exercises.
7. Comforting place or object – Make sure there is a safe space available wherever you go if your child becomes overwhelmed or confused. Give your child a familiar object or favorite snack to help him or her with transitions and offer comfort and predictability. Pack your child his or her own backpack of snacks and activities for him or her to engage in while waiting at places such as restaurants or airports.
8. Visiting family and friends – Talk to friends and family beforehand about things that bother or overwhelm your child. Make sure they know ahead of time accommodations that your child will need. Ask about activities available in the area. If your child is on a restricted diet, search online for a nearby health food store that sells the food items that he or she may need. Provide friends and family with resources they can read and become familiar with your child’s possible behaviors.
9. Summer traveling – When taking family trips you can prepare the child in different ways. For example, if going to the beach, buy a small amount of sand from a hardware store and let child play with it ahead of time. Play a CD of wave sounds if you're heading to the beach. Start off slow, with day trips, so the child is comfortable with being in a new environment. Drive or fly at night so the child can sleep. Ask your pediatrician for suggestions on how to deal with any ear pain your child may experience while flying.
10. Social stories – Some children with autism may also benefit from social stories to help them learn interpersonal communication skills and important aspects of a new environment. Here is the website for a free app you can use to build your own social story – Touch Autism. Social Stories Creator and Library for Preschool, Autism, and Special Needs.
It is important for everyone to be patient and remember that new activities take time to learn and for individuals with autism to feel comfortable. Everyone learns at his or her own pace; it will take time for your child to adjust to new routines, people and places. Keep a list of what did and did not work so that you can use your own tips for next summer or when traveling during the year. Most of all have fun and enjoy your time together building great memories!
I would like to give a special thanks to Frank Ammirata, a teacher of students with autism in Brooklyn, for sharing some of the tips he has learned through his experiences.
Dr. Frances Victory received her PhD in Developmental Psychology at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. Her thesis was titled, "Exploring the Role of Perceived Religiosity on Daily Life, Coping, and Parenting for Jewish Parents of Children with Autism." You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org