Summer is right around the corner. Every year parents are faced with the same dilemma regarding what to do with their child on the autism spectrum while school is not in session. There are a variety of activities a child could engage in. The problem is finding the right one that suits your child’s interests and needs. For older, higher functioning children on the spectrum there is the added pressure of finding a summer experience that will help them transition to life after high school. Should they try to find a job? Go to summer camp? Travel? Or attend a summer bridge program? Each of these options has its benefits as well as its draw backs.
Summer bridge programs are designed to help students transition from high school to a college environment. These may be offered by community colleges, transition programs operated by not for profit social services agencies, for profit experiential travel companies, and four year colleges and universities. The populations they serve vary. Some programs target under represented populations or at risk youth. Others specialize in helping students with intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, or other disabilities transition to college. Finally, some summer bridge programs are geared toward the general population, but are organized around a theme (e.g. oceanography, sports, science, engineering, robotics, and even Shakespeare).
When deciding whether or not to send your child to a summer bridge program or some other activity, the first step is to decide what are the goals of this experience? Is it an opportunity for them to gain some independence? Learn some independent living skills? Or are they engaging in the activity to learn job skills? Perhaps, the goal is to remediate academic deficits or assess whether or not they can handle the stressors of college credit bearing classes and the demands of communal living in a dormitory. Rank order those goals in terms of importance. No single program can fulfill every single goal, but some may be address your higher priority goals.
The next step is to find out what the student’s goals are for the summer. Identify common goals. This may result in a clear choice as to which summer activity to select. Where there are differences in goals, it will be important to process with your child/young adult those differences. Find out what fears they may have about trying one or more of the various options. Ask them where they envision themselves after high school. Likewise ask them what they feel they need to learn or what they need help with before they are ready to transition to after high school. Compare options and program offerings to this list of needs. Is there an option that best fits the needs they expressed?
A third step is to explore options together. Search for preliminary information on the internet. Exchange information with your son or daughter regarding your searches. Discuss what you like and dislike about what you have read thus far. Next, visit the programs and colleges where they are held -if possible. Many programs will have open houses so that families can tour the facilities and ask questions. This a great opportunity to ask questions about supervision, goals of the program, day and evening activities the students participate in, and what are the students expected to bring. How many summer participants go on to matriculate in the college’s academic program or Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) program? Does the program accept school district funding through and IEP if the student has extended year services? These are two good questions to ask administrators.
Ask if you can have contact information for parents and students who have attended the bridge program during previous summers. Get the perspective of not only the parents, but the student as well. Have your student ask the past participant of the program what they liked and did not like about their summer experience. Would they recommend the program? If they had to do it all over again, would they attend it again knowing what they know now?
Deciding how long a student should participate in a summer bridge program is a function of the goals of the summer experience, the structure of the program, and the student’s previous experience with living away from home. Some programs can be as short as 1-2 weeks and are meant to be an introduction to living away from home. Others last longer and can be as long as seven weeks. The rationale for this length of time is that it is exactly half the length of a typical college semester. If a student can tolerate and even thrive living away from home in a college dormitory for this length of time, then chances are they will be successful staying a complete semester during an academic year. Some programs are the exact length of a college semester. In this case, students enrolled in these programs are earning college credit for their coursework as opposed to learning remedial, vocational or independent living skills in non-credit bearing classes.
What can a parent do to ensure successful completion of a summer bridge program? There are a number of activities a parent can engage in to insure successful completion of a summer bridge program. These behaviors can and should be done years in advance of attendance at a summer bridge program. Giving the child the opportunity to separate from caregivers by attending sleep overs, day camps, and eventually sleep away summer camps is a first activity a parent can engage in to insure success. The second activity that is a predictor of successful transition to post-secondary life is teaching your child how to set and use an alarm clock to get themselves up in the morning. A third activity is teaching your son or daughter how to do his or her own laundry, organize his or her rooms, and organize his or her possessions. Doing laundry for the first time in an unfamiliar environment can be a considerable source of stress for any student, but especially for those on the autism spectrum. Many summer bridge programs and colleges have students share small dormitory rooms. One way to avoid roommate conflicts and successfully complete a summer bridge program is to make sure there are no conflicts over a messy living space. Finally, many students on the autism spectrum are on a variety of medications. Teaching your child how to manage their own medication will help them not only to be successful in a summer bridge program, but also throughout his or her life. Tools such as pill boxes and applications on smart phones can be used to organize and help the student remember when to take his or her medication.
Attendance at a summer bridge program 1-2 years before completing high school can help families determine if going away to school and pursuing a college degree is a realistic goal for a higher functioning student on the autism spectrum. It can also help identify what independent living skills need to be bolstered before the student leaves high school. Based upon feedback from a summer program, parents may decide that their student on the spectrum is not quite ready for living away from home and pursuing a college degree, but he or she might benefit from attending a Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary program in between high school and college.
Participation in a summer bridge program can also serve as a stress inoculator for students with ASDs. Often in summer bridge programs the emphasis is placed upon habituating the student to college life and the acquisition of independent living skills and possibly vocational skills. Students in these programs get used to living in the residence halls, eating in the cafeterias, the schedule, and the expectations of the faculty. When they transition into the program in the fall, then the only “new” situation to adapt to is the academic demands and rigor of college. For those students who come in “cold” or without the benefit of a summer bridge program to help them transition to college life the introduction of the environmental demands on top of the academic demands can be overwhelming.
Choosing a summer activity for a child on the autism spectrum is dependent upon the age of the child, his or her level of disability, and the goals for the child. For some older, higher functioning students on the autism spectrum choosing a summer bridge program is an option that can insure a successful transition to post-secondary education and life.
Ernst VanBergeijk is the Associate Dean and Executive Director, at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program. www.nyit.edu/vip. Dr. VanBergeijk also administers Introduction to Independence (I to I), a seven-week summer college preview program for students ages 16 and up.