While summer often evokes thoughts of sunshine, trips to the beach, downtime, leisure reading, and buying ice cream, the reality is that for many families the transition from school to the unstructured days of summer can be stressful. To help families prepare, Robin Talley, MEd, BCBA with the University of Washington Autism Center (UWAC), shared some tips and best practices during a lecture at Seattle Children’s Hospital on April 21, 2011, for the Autism 200 Series.

We attended the lecture and have recapped some of the key takeaways below.

  • Understand that challenges are common. It may be helpful for you to know that summer break can be a challenging and stressful time for many families. It is not always easy for parents or caregivers of children to find activities that are fun, safe, educational, individualized or affordable. Recognizing and acknowledging this is often the first step when thinking about summer. You are not alone in this challenge.
  • Recognize the challenges for caregivers will differ from the challenges for children. As a caregiver, you often want your child to maintain the skills they have learned at school while creating social opportunities for them to engage in. In addition, you are often planning to have a successful vacation while managing the demands of your own work. Children, on the other hand, may be anxious about transitions or a lack of routine. It is likely they struggle with too much unstructured time, or may not have the skills to keep occupied by playing alone or with others. In addition, they may not have the skills to make safe, healthy choices.

To prepare for and have successful summer breaks, here are a few of Robin’s suggestions we found to be most helpful:

  • Prepare now. Research camps and activities for your children in the spring and begin to formulate your plan. Ask about Extended School Year (ESY) programs or talk with your child’s teacher about his or her suggestions. It is also a good idea to involve your child in the planning if possible by talking about summer break, and reading books about summer.
  • Create structure and predictability. To help create a routine, develop a daily visual schedule to support summer-long responsibilities (e.g. watering plants) and activities, and set times for these activities to occur. If your child responds better to visual information, you can use photos or drawings to come up with a schedule, reminders or rules.
  • Alternate tasks. When developing your schedule, remember to alternate new or difficult tasks with more enjoyable tasks. Finally, remember to schedule down time for your child.
  • Plan regular activities. You want to identify the activities that happen the same way, each day (e.g. every morning we get ready for our day by doing…). You can also repeat field trips each week (e.g. every Tuesday we go to swimming lessons) and finally you can create a sense of familiarity by selecting activities that require similar skills, but happen in different locations (e.g. we are going to practice our table manners at home, at Joe’s house and at AppleBee’s).
  • Communicate to set expectations and predictability. Talk with your child about what they will do, how long they’ll do it, how they will know when they are finished and what will happen once the activity is completed.
  • Post your schedule in a prominent location. Your children should be able to see and study the summer schedule. This helps to set expectations.
  • Plan for unexpected changes. You want to let your child know that there will be instances when there will be changes in the schedule. Talk with him or her about the circumstances that might impact your plans. For instance, “On Friday, you see on the schedule we plan to go to the beach. One thing that might cause us to change our plans is rain. If it rains on Friday, we may want to go to the zoo instead.”

For more information about preparing for summer or to obtain a full copy of her presentation, you can email Robin at rtalley@u.wash.edu.

We understand that this topic is important to many families and will look to provide additional information on this and related topics in future blog posts.

Finally, if you have summer strategies that have been effective for your family, please share them in the comments section.