Tips for a Smooth Summer on the Autism Spectrum

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Monday, July 1, 2019

The Scott Center

Summer Can Be A Challenging Time

Summer may be a challenging for families with young children. For families with autistic children, the challenges can increase dramatically. Fortunately, today’s families have a wide range of options for summer programs, as well as a long list of tips and tools for making summer more fun and less stressful.

What's So Challenging About Summer?

Many parents face summer with a combination of excitement and dread. On the one hand, summer means more time with the kids; on the other hand, summer means more unstructured opportunities for kids to get bored or, worse, get into trouble. For working parents, summer can mean a stressful rush to find a summer camp program that's fun, affordable, and reliable. Parents with autistic children face a very different and more imposing set of challenges.

  1. Loss of Structure and Routine—For children with autism, structure and routine are synonymous with comfort and security. Provide it, and life is predictable and manageable. Withdraw it (as happens every year in June) and the world turns upside down.
  2. Loss of Therapies and Supports—Most children with autism have in-school programs or therapies that are paid for by the school district. These may include intensive or modified Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), speech therapy, occupational therapy, and/or social skills therapy. At the end of the school year, these supports and therapies may disappear.
  3. Difficulty with Finding Appropriate Programs—School districts are required by law to provide extended school year (ESY) programs during the summer to students who might regress without them. These programs, however, are rarely full-time and are unlikely to include all the elements of a school year program. Special needs camps and programs are increasingly available in some areas, but they are not available everywhere and may not be appropriate for your child's needs.
  4. High Costs Associated with Appropriate Programs—Even if you do find a summer camp or program for your child, chances are the costs will be much higher than they would be for a typical child. That's because autistic children often need much higher counselor: camper ratios, and may also require specialized care.
  5. Challenging Vacations—Summer vacations are supposed to be a time for relaxation, though many parents find vacations to be stressful. Parents of autistic children can be overwhelmed by the challenges of leaving home with an autistic child, navigating restaurants and hotels, and at the same time finding opportunities for fun with siblings.

How to Overcome Summer Challenges

Luckily, you know exactly when summer is coming and how long it lasts. That means you can plan for success well ahead of time and have all your ducks in a row when the last day of school arrives. Here are some tips for making the experience less stressful and more successful with each succeeding year.

  1. Start early. Start researching your options in September. Start conversations and plans before Christmas. Have your ducks lined up by the end of February. Start preparing your child and others by April. Slide into summer with less stress in June.
  2. Build a summer routine. If you have a child with autism, you may need to forgo summer spontaneity—at least for a few years, until your child is able to go with the flow. Rather than making plans day by day, know what you'll be doing every day and every week. Mark plans on a calendar (or use a visual daily chart) and go over tomorrow's plans with your child. If you're doing something unusual, use pictures and social stories to help your child prepare. If your activity is weather-dependent, have an alternative in mind and share it with your child ahead of time (if it's sunny we'll go to the pool; if it's rainy we'll go to the library).
  3. Find, create, or pay for support. Parents with autistic and typically developing children have a unique challenge in the summer: how do provide your typical child with ordinary summer fun while also supporting an autistic sibling? The obvious answer is "divide and conquer," meaning splitting the children up and having one parent take each child. Sometimes, however, that simply isn't feasible. Another option is finding a friend or relative interested in spending time with your typically developing child (it can be wonderful for a typically developing child to get special time with Grandma, for example).
  4. Consider camp options.  Special needs camps can be very pricey, but in some cases scholarships are available. In addition, some organizations, such as the Y, JCC, and Rotary, will accept special needs campers on a limited basis at a reasonable fee. Bear in mind that such camps may not advertise; you may, therefore, need to do some research to discover opportunities for your child.
  5. Plan vacations carefully. It's tempting to just "go on vacation," intending to discover and explore new destinations as you go. Sure, you can have downtime (in fact, you'll certainly need it) but even on a beach vacation, most kids with autism need a clear schedule and plan. Know exactly what will happen each day, and have alternate plans already in mind in case of an autistic meltdown or unexpected setback.

The most important element for a successful summer with your autistic child is preparation. Plan ahead, prepare your child for new situations and know in advance how you'll manage tricky situations. Once you've lined up your ducks in a row, chances are you'll do just fine.

This information comes from an article written by Lisa Jo Rudy for You can find out more information from or from The Scott Center for Autism Treatment at