With schools breaking up in July and the summer holidays fast approaching, parents and children are preparing for a change in routine. The six-week holiday can mean a wonderful time of family bonding and creating new experiences. However, the summer holidays are also reported to be a highly stressful time in which parents struggle to keep their children occupied and entertained (survey carried out by Drayton Manor Park).
For parents of autistic children, not only may they encounter challenges such as balancing work commitments and managing screen time, but they also have additional challenges in the form of attempting to reinstate a level of structure, routine and predictability that goes away when schools close.
To help ease the transition and prepare autistic children for the summer holidays, take a look at some of our suggestions below:
1. Balance structure and flexibility
Maintain some routines such as mealtimes and bedtimes so that there are aspects of your child’s day that remain consistent. It can be difficult to achieve a ‘fun summer’ with spur of the moment trips, especially if your autistic child thrives on routine, structure and predictability. To lessen the stress and anxiety, implement small adjustments when trying something new. It is not realistic to replicate the school day nor is it sustainable to embed spontaneous activities for the entire summer, so do not place too much pressure on yourself as a parent.
2. Communicate with your child
This may seem like an obvious one, but communication is so important. When there is a big transition like the summer holidays coming up or a new activity, event or trip scheduled, communicate this to your child. Preparation is important so this may mean slowly introducing these changes into conversation very early on. Ensure that your child has some input about what their summer may involve by asking them what they would like to do or providing some choices. Communication may also mean being transparent about the more negative aspects of an event like long journey times. Visual stories can be a useful tool to support communicating new or challenging scenarios.
3. Utilise visual and auditory supports
Visual and auditory supports can aid and enhance communication. In the context of the summer holidays – a highly unstructured time – visuals such as calendars and timetables and auditory supports such as timers and alarms can help provide structure and routine. Supports like visual recipes can also encourage independence, especially during the summer holidays when parents may be balancing the needs of other children. By using visual and auditory supports you can provide an overview of what your child’s hour/day/week may entail and help them to prepare. By being prescriptive with these resources, you can reduce frustration and anxiety in your child as well as build their confidence and self-management skills.
4. Utilise role play and practice!
Many families will choose to travel / go abroad in the summer holidays. This can present challenges for autistic children as new environments, timings and experiences can create unpredictability and uncertainty. Travelling involves new routines, new sensory experiences and new expectations and activities. Therefore, it is important that your child practises the skills needed to navigate such scenarios. Role play could involve your child acting out the security procedures in an airport, applying sunscreen or even communicating to you that they need a break from a busy environment like the shopping centre.
5. Address sensory needs
The summer holidays can mean an increase in sensory input – the weather is warmer; smells are more prominent, and places are busier and louder. It is important to consider that new locations you visit during the summer holidays may be overwhelming for your autistic child. There are steps to take to limit the impact of additional sensory input. If your child engages in sensory activities to maintain regulation, make sure they have access to these. This can include bringing fidget toys on trips, wearing ear defenders or ensuring they have movement breaks before and during long journeys. It can also mean identifying quiet spaces in public areas or communicating your needs in advance to friends and family if you are visiting their houses.
It is important to note that each of the tips mentioned will have to be individualised for your child and their needs. For example, visual calendars should be tailored accordingly – your child may prefer an hour-by-hour breakdown of the day, or they may only cope with knowing what activity is first and what is next. Take a look at our resources section for a range of tools you can download for free and adapt at home, including a guide for home schooling.
Working in partnership with schools
Additionally, working in collaboration with your child’s school is a great way of helping your child prepare for summer. If you plan to try new techniques or resources, communicate this with school and they can support with implementing these at school. Some skills can be worked on before schools close in July – this includes practice and role play or the use of social stories.
Schools can also help to facilitate a more successful summer for autistic children, their parents and families by utilising the following strategies and teaching procedures.
1. Activity Schedules and Independent Workstations
Activity schedules and independent workstations involve children completing multiple activities back-to-back. Visual reminders of the order of tasks and the corresponding materials are all provided for the learner. Within the classroom, teachers, Learning Support Assistants and Teaching Assistants should identify games and activities that a child knows how to play with and set these up alongside a schedule for the child to engage with independently. By implementing activity schedules in the school environment, this can be transferred to the home environment and used during the summer holidays when parents need their child to occupy their own time.
2. Natural Environment Teaching
Parents report that during the summer holidays, they are looking for activities that are both fun and educational for their children (research study, Tesco 2022). Natural Environment Teaching (NET) enables autistic children to learn skills that are academic and / or functional in a more relaxed manner. With NET, teaching is embedded within activities that the child already finds motivating. For example, if your child loves cars, you can use that as an opportunity to learn about colours or counting. As NET can be conducted within environments that the child is already familiar with and does not require the child to be seated at a table, NET can be implemented by school staff and then used by parents or other caregivers that the child may spend time with during the summer holidays.
The summer holidays can be a stressful and disorienting time for autistic children and their parents and families. However, by utilising some of the tips outlined above, with advanced planning and joined up thinking with their school, autistic children can find the transition less challenging and continue to learn throughout the break. For more information on the topic, take a look at our Lunch and Learn webinar below.