You work hard to make sure your child is progressing toward his goals and to effectively manage an interdisciplinary team and your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) during the course of the year. That work requires significant resources (fiscal, emotional, and temporal), the diplomacy skills of an attaché, and the organizational skills of a project engineer. However, as the summer break rapidly approaches, you wonder whether your child will maintain the momentum of progress or lose precious functional skills acquired during the school year; for parents of children on the autism spectrum this is a legitimate and ongoing concern. Certainly, summer breaks are a time for play and easy living, but the sunny season recess can also disrupt predictable routines, decrease the pace of skill attainment, and put your child at risk for regression. Alternatively, with careful planning and creative thinking, your family can enjoy the fun and carefree days of summer without having to worry about setbacks.
Practical Guidelines For the Summer Break
Use Activity-Based Intervention – Activity-based intervention refers to instruction that takes place within the natural rhythms and routines of a child’s day (e.g., going to the grocery store, walking the dog). Generally, activity-based intervention is a smart instructional model; however, it is especially useful during the summer months due to its emphasis on:
- Teaching within routine, planned, or child-initiated activities;
- Addressing a child’s IEP goals and objectives;
- Using real materials in the context of familiar environments;
- Capitalizing on naturally occurring consequences; and
- Maintaining and developing functional skills used across settings (e.g., home and community) and with different people and materials.
- Activity-based instruction is adaptable because it focuses on embedding instruction directly into children’s and families’ daily activities and routines.
Make a Plan – Activity-Based Intervention during the summer months requires advanced planning and full family participation. First, list all of the people in your child’s life who will be positioned to provide instructional opportunities; immediate family, extended family, friends, and babysitters should be recruited to the greatest extent possible. Next, list every person’s unique interests, personal strengths, and activities they naturally perform and enjoy (e.g., grandmother enjoys swimming and cooking; dad enjoys hiking; and the babysitter is a dancer). Third (and most essential), outline all of your child’s IEP goals and objectives centered on the development of:
- Language and communication (e.g., touching a person to get attention, pointing to items when requested),
- Fine motor skills (e.g., using scissors, turning dials),
- Gross motor skills (e.g., walking up and down stairs),
- Adaptive skills (e.g., using silverware, dressing and undressing),
- Social communication skills (e.g., following multiple-step directions),
- Cognitive skills (e.g., retelling an event in sequence), and
- Social skills (e.g., working cooperatively in a small group)
Once you have captured everyone’s interests and strengths, as well as all the IEP goals and objectives for your child, deliberately “match” personal interests to the IEP goals and objectives. Doing so will: (a) help ensure that your child will have the opportunity to work on the development or maintenance of critical skills (embedding instruction within activities that individuals enjoy and naturally gravitate towards increases the likelihood that important skills will be addressed); (b) build upon a person’s strengths and natural interests and avoid contrived situations that will ultimately be avoided; and (3) give everyone a choice, and a level of control, centered on summer activities and how they spend time with a child.
Solicit feedback from the critical people in your child’s life. If grandmother enjoys cooking, her grandchild could use scissors to cut pieces of dough within the context of a cooking activity (fine motor skill development). If dad enjoys hiking, his daughter could follow a series of two-step directions to find a high interest item hidden on a favorite hiking trail (social communication skills development). If the babysitter enjoys Irish Step Dancing, your child might assist her in cutting out footprints and using them as a guide for foot placement during a dance routine (gross motor skill development). A demonstration of the creative synthesis of these ideas involves a mom who wanted her child (John) to use a visual schedule (an IEP goal) to support the consistency and predictability of routines he required. She advocated using motivating visual schedules incorporating John’s interests in a fun and engaging way. One idea she had for her pirate-infatuated son was to use a pirate map that incorporated both a visual schedule and “if-then” contingencies. Each day John would assist in the creation of his pirate map using construction paper, pirate-themed stickers, and markers. His map included all of the tasks and activities for the day. The idea was that John would start at the beginning and would need to complete each item to continue toward his “treasure.” Playing games on his iPad and eating frozen yogurt were highly preferred activities; therefore, each was represented as “treasure” on his map. Opportunities to reach the treasure were interspersed among daily living activities, chores, and academic work; he did not have to wait the whole day to access preferred activities.
Create a Visual Matrix – After identifying interests and strengths of those involved in your child’s life and outlining all IEP goals and objectives, a Summer Skills Matrix should be prepared. The matrix is a simple grid that displays: (a) all individuals who will spend time with your child and coordinate learning opportunities; (b) the interests, preferred activities, and strengths of all individuals (including those of your child); (c) categorized IEP goals and objectives (e.g., gross motor, fine motor); and (d) activities that will serve as a vehicle for instructional opportunities. Note that grid content is not static; regular updates and changes are required during the course of the summer to avoid boredom and accommodate changes in context (i.e., where the family is spending time).
Take Photos, Make Movies – Taking photographs and movies with a cell phone is a good way of capturing a child’s progress and sharing information with others. Images can later be edited on a computer with the child if doing so aligns with his or her interests. The actual Summer Skills Matrix can be used to track progress on completing planned activities.
For a child with ASD, the summer recess is certainly a time to enjoy a less structured lifestyle; however, the season can occasion further skill development if skill maintenance is planned properly. Therefore, it is important to:
- Use activity-based intervention whereby learning opportunities are embedded within the rhythm and routine of a child’s day;
- Make a plan based on: the participation of extended family, friends, and babysitters; the personal strengths and interests of all individuals; and the child’s IEP goals and objectives;
- Create a Summer Skills Matrix that defines each person’s role and the learning objectives for the child; and finally
- Capture the child’s progress through photographs and movies to share with everyone interested in the child’s development.
“Summertime is always the best of what might be.” — Charles Bowden
Heather Walker, MS, BCBA, is Clinical Director in New York and Michael J. Cameron, PhD, BCBA-D, is Chief Clinical Officer at Pacific Child and Family Associates. For more information, please visit www.pacificchild.com.