Summer is coming and it’s time to start preparations. We know most children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) benefit from a structured schedule and environment, so much so that they usually know their schedule better than the adults who care for them. But what happens come summer?
Schedules tend to vary from day to day. Things are no longer as predictable. There is increased downtime. Skills kids have worked on all year long get forgotten or aren’t practiced enough. Siblings spend more time together often leading to more disagreements.
The truth is that summer interrupts a schedule and structure that both the student and the family have been following for nine or more months.
Most families I work with have mixed feelings about the summer. On one hand they want time off from the day-to-day tasks and schedule to have some fun. On the other hand, they want to make sure their kids are busy, engaged and most importantly – maintaining the skills they learned throughout the year.
The good news is there are a variety of ways to both have fun and keep fresh the skills your child worked hard on during the school year. With a combination of structured activities, natural environment training and community outings, you can learn and have fun this summer. The important first step is planning, and planning starts early.
In an effort to maintain both successful behavior and skills learned throughout the school year, you may want to consider implementing one or more of the following strategies during the months leading up to summer:
February: Sign Up for Community Outings to Create Practice Opportunities
Believe it or not, February is not too early to begin finding opportunities in the community that give you and your child different, prescheduled chances to practice and learn skills. We often refer to these as community outings. They can be one time only, such as a visit to the science museum, or several outings to the same place for repeated practice, like daily zoo camp or weekly trips to the zoo.
Use this time to identify the abundant list of summer camps, classes and events available.
The key is to create more and more opportunities for your child to practice the skills they know, as well as to learn new skills in the natural environment. By combining community outings with teaching, you and your family can both have fun and maintain your child’s current abilities.
Often, registration for summer events begins as early as February. Check the local paper, library, bookstore or community websites and message boards for announcements on summer activities.
March: Recruit Home Staff
This month is a good time to recruit home staff and babysitters for the summer months. When recruiting staff for your home, you should first consider familiar resources, which are usually free. These include referrals through neighbors, friends, co-workers or church. Other free referral sources can be high schools, universities or local job boards.
Confirm your summer support and schedule needs. It will be difficult to recruit and interview staff without this.
When completing staff interviews remember to ask about things like reliable transportation to and from work, as well as when transporting your child to and from activities. Document any preplanned summer vacations the individual may have committed to. Find out how the perspective staff interacts with children. Some staff prefer to sit back and let the child engage themselves while others prefer to interact and get down on the floor to play with kids. Which one is best for you?
Don’t forget to register for all of the activities you found in February. Summer activity registrations often close by the end of March.
April: Schedule a Summer Planning Meeting at School
There are several important things to mark on your to-do list this month. Let’s take a look:
- Finalize all summer activities your child will attend and map them on your summer calendar.
- Confirm your summer support and schedule needs. Again, it will be difficult to recruit and interview staff without this.
- Identify the skills your child will work on during summer.
- Hire home staff.
One of the most important things to do this month is to schedule a summer planning meeting with your child’s teacher for the end of the month or early May. This is a meeting with important members of your child’s education and treatment team to define summer goals and objectives. It may include the teacher, paraprofessional, behavior analyst, speech pathologist, occupational therapist, and others that work with your child.
Schedule a summer planning meeting with your child’s teacher for the end of the month or early May. It’s important to give you and the teacher enough time to identify summer skills to work on, as well as gather the materials necessary for implementation.
May: Complete a Summer Planning Meeting and Get Your Home Ready
By now, hopefully you have completed most everything needed to prepare for a great summer. So what’s left? By the beginning of May you should have completed the summer planning meeting with your child’s teacher and education team.
Use this time to identify the skills your child is currently working on, the level of support your child needs to be successful in each area and the materials required when practicing these subjects during the summer months. Map a daily and weekly schedule the team feels would be the most appropriate based upon your child’s learning style and rate. Close the meeting with a set time and date for the team to resume when school starts next year to share your child’s progress over the summer. This will ensure everyone starts the year with a good understanding of where your child is in his or her development. In addition, consider asking your summer staff to observe your child in the classroom or spend time with him and your family in the evenings and weekends to help acclimate everyone to the upcoming changes.
Finally, prepare your home to be an ideal learning environment to meet the needs of your child. If necessary, set up a structured learning area in your home with the needed working materials and absence of distractions. As part of natural environment teaching, walk through each room of the house and identify your skills target list per room. Meet with the behavior analyst to identify needed behavior supports, environmental modifications, specialized training materials, staff training schedule and needs and other tips on how to make the summer successful. Then, get ready for summer to begin!
Michele LaMarche, BCBS, executive director of Step by Step, has more than 15 years of clinical, hands-on experience working with those affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) while delivering evidenced-based treatment solutions to encourage their growth and development.
In 2011, LeMarche received the Best Practice Award by the Ohio Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities. LeMarche also is the co-founder of Special Learning (www.special-learning.com), a company dedicated to delivering the most advanced educational and web-based tools and resources to those affected by autism.