Throughout my career as Board Certified Behavior Analyst, families have always asked: “What are we suppose to do during the summer?” Now a parent of a child with autism, as summer quickly approaches, I have the same fears that any parent with a child on the spectrum faces. Will my child be the only one screaming to NOT get in the pool? Will my entire family miss the fireworks show on July 4th yet again? How many BBQs will we have to skip?
Many people assume my training and experience as a BCBA has equipped to handle my own son’s rigidity and behaviors that manifest through his autism. However, in many ways, it’s quite the opposite. Theoretically, yes, I know what to do and I’ve developed countless behavior plans, generalization strategies, and schedules for other families. But in those challenging moments with my own child, I’m just like any other parent. I fear, I worry, and I plan because all I want is my child to participate and have fun.
From my experience as both a BCBA and a mother, I created a list of suggestions for how families can prepare for the summer to hopefully help you enjoy some fun in the sun.
- Prepare your bag: Identify reinforcers to increase your child’s motivation to participate in less-preferred activities. My little guy loves mini M&M’s, and I’m not afraid to use them! Also, fill your bag with sensory activities (e.g. squeeze ball and chewy tube), hats or sunglasses (for children sensitive to light), ear plugs (for children sensitive to loud sounds, such as fireworks). Keep in mind that spontaneity increases anxiety for children on the spectrum. You may consider writing out or drawing a schedule. This can reduce their anxiety of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Alternate between highly preferred activities and less-preferred activities to increase motivation to participate in those activities your children may avoid.
- Pre-Plan Activities: Make a list of outdoor activities ahead of time, so you are not scrambling to figure out what to do with your children. Include sensory-based activities that include using shaving creams and water. Include motor planning activities, such as ball play and bike riding. Children with autism often have a fear of the unknown, so it may be proactive to prime (warn) your child where you are going so they can anticipate what is about to happen. You may even create a visual schedule of these planned activities. This can be as simple as writing the activities down on a piece of paper or showing them pictures on your phone.
- Check Your Community: You may be surprised that many communities have events and/or activities specifically designed for children with special needs. In my community, my son loves our sensory friendly gym, specifically designed for children with autism, with lowered lighting, reduced amount of equipment, and smaller classes. Also, check local amusements parks that may offer accommodations for children with special needs.
- Be Safe: In preparation for outdoor activities, organize activities that will ensure safety for yourself and your little ones. Currently, my son is enrolled in individual swim lessons, so when it’s pool time, he will have techniques to remain safe in the water. Also, with his ABA therapists, we practice street safety, such as looking for cars when crossing the street and staying close to my husband and me). In doing so, we can go on walks and bike rides as a family and with our friends.
- Try It Out Before: If you anticipate your children will find an event or activity difficult, take them to that location before the event to acclimate to that new setting. Knowing we were throwing his brother’s first birthday party at a clubhouse, two times per week for three weeks prior, we visited this clubhouse with our little guy. We brought some activities that would be at the party so he could practice playing with them there. When it was time for the party, my son was fantastic! He even participated in every activity alongside the other children.
- Practice Makes Perfect: Before attending summer activities, like barbecues, the beach, or picnics, practice these events in a more controlled setting such as your home. A great way to do this is through “pretend play.” My son loves setting up a pretend picnic in our living room with pretend food, a picnic basket, and a blanket. Other fun and easy ideas include watching videos or reading books, allowing your child to experience visually what may happen during these activities. When my son started swimming, my husband and I even took videos of ourselves swimming for our son to view before his first swim lesson.
- Give Yourself A Break: This is the most valuable suggestion! You only take care of others if you are taking care of yourself. Having a child with autism tests you as a parent and as a family. My husband and I make it a priority to plan date nights where we have dinner with friends.
I hope these 7 Summer Suggestions will lead to a fun, relaxing summer for you and your family. What do you use to get in the summer spirit with your special family?
Kimberly Zhe is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and proud autism mom. Kimberly has worked with children with autism and related disorders for over 15 years. She is married to the love of her life and fellow behavior analyst, Michael Zhe. They have two boys, ages 1 and 3 years old. Her 3-year-old received a diagnosis of autism at 32 months. Although she sometimes misses clinical work, she loves staying home to care for her two boys. She loves being a staff writer for Love My Provider and hopes to empower parents to understand behavioral strategies through the eyes of a behavior analyst and autism mom!