A podcast by Elizabeth Verdick and Elizabeth Reeve, M.D., coauthors of The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents)
Third in a monthly series of podcasts from Free Spirit Publishing.
Keeping kids active and safe in the summer is a challenge for all parents. For those with kids on the autism spectrum, some extra planning can help make the shift into a summer routine easier on their child, and on themselves. Two of Free Spirit Publishing’s autism experts offer some practical suggestions.
Elizabeth Reeve, M.D.: Summer is here and for most of us that means sunshine, vacations, and a change in the daily routine. But if you have a child or teen on the autism spectrum, summertime may not be quite as relaxing as you wish. Despite potential challenges, the next few months can be enjoyable, even for those with autism—if you have a plan. I’m Dr. Elizabeth Reeve and today, along with my coauthor Elizabeth Verdick, we’re going to share some tips for easing the transition to summer vacation based on our book The Survival Guide for Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders (And Their Parents).
Elizabeth Verdick: Summer is a sticky situation—and not just because of the sunscreen and bug spray! It’s probably no surprise that kids on the spectrum, especially those with sensory issues, often hate these summer necessities. They may also dislike shorts, short sleeves, hats, and going outdoors. What’s a parent to do? Take a deep breath and make a plan.
Reeve: People on the autism spectrum have difficulty with change and transitions. The end of the school year is a huge transition from strictly scheduled days to hours of unstructured free time. Even if your child tends to struggle in class or complain about the school day, you know his or her time there is predictable, monitored, and safe. Then summer arrives, school lets out, and suddenly you have to prepare engaging, daily activities to keep your child busy.
Verdick: I have a twelve-year-old son with ASD who can’t wait for summer vacation to start. “What do you want to do this summer, Zach?” “Video games!” He could happily play Xbox and Nintendo all day, or watch countless YouTube videos that give hints and strategies for his games. But if I were to let my son do this, Dr. Reeve would have my head! She strongly believes that all kids—and particularly those on the autism spectrum—need time outdoors in the fresh air, where they can explore nature, be physically active, and step outside their comfort zone.
Reeve: The research about the mental-health benefits of exercise and activity consistently shows benefits such as improved sleep, increased mood, decreased anxiety, and better appetite regulation. In addition, some studies with children on the spectrum suggest a wide range of other possible improvements including decreased self-stimulatory behaviors and improved socialization.
Verdick: My son Zach isn’t exactly an outdoor enthusiast—but he is an amazing young fisherman. He’ll put up with sunscreen, wind, bugs, and a big, floppy sunhat just to be on the dock or in the boat, casting a line into the lake. Fishing season has barely begun and he’s already caught a large walleye and two sizable northern pikes. I’m so proud of his fishing skills! And now that he’s expressed interest in growing a garden, we have another option for outdoor time.
Reeve: Be sure to prepare your child for the sensory challenges that come with being outdoors. “Practice” using sunscreen; experiment with different brands. Some children hate lotion but will tolerate sunscreen sprays. Some children need extra time to get used to the smell and texture of the products you buy. You may want to try clothing that has built-in UV protection, too.
Verdick: Insect repellants often—you guessed it—repel kids who have sensory issues. Practice using bug spray, and try to find products with a lighter scent. You may prefer to use the product on hats and clothing rather than on skin. Any time insect repellant is sprayed directly on skin, be sure your child showers or takes a bath before going to bed.
Getting our kids outdoors is just one part of a successful summertime plan. The other part is creating a manageable routine that can carry our children through the summer months.
Reeve: If you have a school-age child with autism, perhaps the most important goal is to continue some of your child’s school-year routine into the summer months. Make sure your child wakes at about the same time of morning as on a school day, instead of sleeping really late. Mornings will be more predictable if your child gets up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and starts the day off well.
Verdick: Consider having a posted schedule that uses words or pictures to show the day’s activities. Include meals, chores, events, outings, and downtime. For higher-functioning kids, offer lots of options for making choices about preferred activities. Does your child want to visit a friend, see a movie, do some artwork, jump on a trampoline, read, swim, bike, hike? Let your child choose fun things to do from a list you’ve prepared. Keep the choices visible and simple: Do you want to go to the park or to the community center? is a better option than a broad question such as What do you want to do today?
Reeve: Summer includes a few special holidays, like Father’s Day and the Fourth of July—events that are often celebrated outdoors with picnics and barbecues. Some kids with ASD don’t like typical summer foods (tangy barbecue sauce, messy corn on the cob, drippy watermelon). Others may be on restricted diets. When your child’s favorite foods aren’t on the menu, be prepared to supply alternatives. Don’t use a social occasion as an opportunity to have your child try new foods, even if Aunt Flo wants everyone to eat her homemade apple pie. Your child may already be overwhelmed by the social situation itself, and forcing him or her to eat the food offered may simply be too much. Sure, you may have to endure those “looks” and sidelong glances from relatives who assume you’re an over-indulgent parent—but you’re not. You’re making the best of a special situation, and your judgment is the best judgment when it comes to your child.
Verdick: Our kids with ASD may not relish going to camp or joining a team sport in the summer. As a mom, I struggled with this because I knew that other children were out there playing baseball with teammates or staying up late telling ghost stories with the other campers. Then I realized there are lots of opportunities for kids who prefer solo activities: swimming, diving, golf, geocaching, martial arts, jumping rope, rollerblading, and even hula-hooping! You can find day- and sleep-away camps designed for children with special needs. And there may be teams in your community that focus less on competition and more on including all children, regardless of ability.
Reeve: Summer can be a time of fun, growth, and personal development. The key to success is to keep your expectations realistic. Above all, don’t forget to put yourself on the list. Treat yourself to a day where you do a special activity on your own or with a close friend or significant other. You need to take care of yourself, too!
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