Summer offers a break from the structure of school and a chance to get outside and play. For students, summer means no more school. Unfortunately, my kid hates all of that.
It’s not that she hates it per se, but that it means her routine is broken. Because of her autism, she needs that structure. She loves her time in gym, or music class, or art. She thrives when she’s receiving one-on-one time with teachers who understand her special needs.
So what does a busy autism parent need to do to get ready for summer, when the routine their child is used to goes out the window for several months?
A lot of kids like Lily suffer something called regression, where the skills they learned throughout the school year atrophy over the long break. They have to get supplemented with a program called Extended School Year (ESY). Find out if you’re approved and where you’re going.
If you’re not a stay-at-home parent, you have to find some form of childcare while you’re at work. This is always the most stressful part of the summer for me. Childcare costs a ton, and asking a friend or relative to handle that workload is a lot. Look at Medical Assistance for possible ways to defray costs. Grants are also available and, if you have the option, Flexcare through insurance will at least mean your childcare spending is tax-exempt.
This is where autism parents get their first taste of what it’s like to be a teacher. Finding daily activities to keep kids busy, in both mind and body, can help keep them on even keel. It can’t hurt to work on the goals that you establish for ESY either.
There are some great special needs camps out there, but they fill up fast. They offer swimming lessons, dance lessons, bike-riding lessons, and more. There are even some all-abilities overnight camps out there.
Camping is not for everyone, and it can be stressful, but it’s also a wonderful bonding opportunity that keeps the kids active and engaged.
Within my area are dozens of walking trails. Lily tolerates these pretty well. They get us both out of the house and into the sunshine, exploring trails and taking photos.
It’s not always easy to be spontaneous when autism is part of the equation, but with enough preparation up front, you can be prepared to veer off course when you have a backpack stored in your car for whatever summer adventure awaits! I have a backpack that is just for our outings. At minimum, I keep water, a spare set of clothes, water shoes, a bathing suit, and a few snacks in it.
Though this is not Lily’s particular favorite, it’s an amazing experience. Volunteers work one-on-one with the kids. Everyone gets a chance to bat, and no scores are kept. It’s as low-stress as Little League can possibly be.
One of the intangibles that is missing from the school experience over the summer is the social interaction of peers. Kids with autism are not noted for their social skills, so this is a bigger deal than it might seem. Adding a play group or social skills group is a great opportunity to keep sharpening those skills.
Whether it’s a once-per-month sensory friendly viewing of the latest movie, a trip to the cultural district, or just an amusement park outing, many businesses — including some movie theatres — are offering sensory-friendly experiences that are more inclusive of autistic children.
Nothing can quite replace the stable, structured environment that school offers. But with a bit of advanced planning, you can recreate some of that structure, while adding a little more love and some personalized programming.
Jim Walter is the author of Just a Lil Blog, where he chronicles his adventures as a single dad of two daughters, one of whom has autism. You can follow him on Twitter at @blogginglily.