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What Shall We Do This Summer?

posted on July 30, 2015

This is a question that most parents or caregivers begin to contemplate towards the end of the school year.  For most of us, it just seems to come naturally.  We enroll our kids in various camps, sports programs, summer school, and so on.  We plan vacations or day outings.  Camping is often a big part of summer, and spontaneous trips are welcomed with instant enthusiasm.  But, these scenarios are not always the norm.

The world looks very different for kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  The summer season can be an arduous shift for them.  Keeping in mind that people with ASD thrive on routine and structure, summer can only mean the opposite.

The mere fact that there is no morning school bus can be a terrifying experience for some kids, and not knowing what to expect from one day to the next just adds unpredictability.  Truthfully, it isn’t possible to mimic the structure school offers at home.  However, to allow kids with ASD to transition slowly, and to stay occupied with activities that fulfill their needs, thereby reducing stress-induced behaviours and agitation, it is imperative to plan a course of action ahead of time.  So, the question for parents or caregivers of kids with ASD is really, “What shall we plan to do this summer?”  Here are some guidelines…

People with ASD are very visual learners.  For the most part, and irrespective of their level of cognitive functioning, they have lower comprehension when instructions are given to them verbally.  Rather than trying to explain, create social stories and visuals appropriate for their level to prepare them for the transition.  Start with the first Monday morning after summer starts.  Show them what will be happening on that first Monday morning instead of going to school.

It is a good idea, when planning activities and outings, to start slowly.  One essential factor to keep in mind is if the activities and outings planned are developmentally appropriate.  Noise, lighting, or lengthy travel times might prove to be difficult to handle for some, while others may tolerate higher levels of sensory input.  For example, street performances can be very crowded and noisy, and that could translate to a person with ASD becoming very anxious, in turn leading to challenging behaviours which are harder to contain in a public setting.

Heat and humidity also need to be considered, as people with ASD often perspire more profusely, feel overly exhausted in high temperatures, and do not have the skills to communicate their discomfort.  It is, of course, impossible to predict the weather, but having a ‘plan B’ is a good idea.

Although people with ASD have differing levels of attention span, in general they are easily overwhelmed by certain settings, hence, it is ideal to plan for shorter activities and to keep expectations in regards to timeframe reasonable, especially during the initial transition period.

For instance, long wait times can be a big trigger of unexpected behaviours.  Waiting is a hard concept to understand for people with ASD, but there are good ways to combat this issue.  If possible, buy tickets in advance.  If you do anticipate a wait time, have something ready for them to fiddle with.  Keep an emergency supply of yummy snacks on hand, listen to music, or even allow your charge to wait in the car while another person deals with the logistics.

Breaking activities and outings into smaller chunks also provides individuals with ASD with the intermittent down-time that is essential to their peace of mind.  Allowing them to watch something on an I-pad, squish a ball, rock, or perform whatever other activity meets their sensory requirements is just as important in the summer.

Being proactive is always beneficial.  Carrying a visual schedule can effectively help to provide some calm to people with ASD.  It reminds them of what to expect and clarifies the connections between events, the “First-Then” concept – “First park, then lunch.”  This alleviates anxiety of the unknown.  An entire personalized calendar is also a good tool to provide the necessary constant reminders of what is happening next.  However, it is equally important to prepare them for inevitable changes in routine, such as the cancellation of some event, to avoid confusion and stress.

Last, but certainly not least, having a crisis plan, a redirection strategy, in the event of extreme behaviours is vital.  A list of people to call, a slip of paper in a backpack with demographic information in case they go missing, for example, is crucial.

As with any young person being brought out into a busy environment, responsible preventative measures are what make us conscientious parents and caregivers.

People with autism may smell things more strongly, they may see things more clearly, hear things more loudly, and feel and taste things differently.  As we teach them the social skills and abilities required to cope with a fairly overwhelming world, it is important to flex our brains and make accommodations that will help them to be successful, while respecting and retaining the essence of who they are.  Summer, after all, should be a time of fun for everyone.

- Roopa Belur, Behaviour Specialist