By now, many students are enjoying summer vacation. This time of year is often synonymous with no alarm clocks, a relaxed schedule, hanging out at the pool, and no school work. However, for kids on the spectrum, summer vacation can come with anxiety, spikes in problematic behaviors, and academic and social regression. Here we will give some ideas to help with what some call “The Summer Slide”.
Students on the autism spectrum thrive on routine. For nine months out of the year, these students follow a predictable schedule. They are told when to get up, when to get dressed, when to get in the car or on the bus. Once at school, students have a fairly set schedule, without many questions as to what their days will look like. Sure, Tuesdays may be different from Monday due to a different Special class, or maybe there is an assembly, but besides those small changes, their days are fairly the same. Summertime often comes with a more relaxed schedule, which lends itself to less predictability. Summer is a time when parents often see behaviors that had all but disappeared rear their heads again. Here are a few ways to help an anxious student through the summertime uncertainty:
Make a schedule–This does not mean that your day has to be (or should be!) planned out to the minute. Giving your child a general overview of the day will be extremely helpful for most. More often than not, our students on the spectrum rely, at least to some extent, on visuals and visual cues. Depending on age and ability, this can be pictures of what will be happening during the day, a written list of the day’s activities, or simply talking through the day’s events in the morning and then reminding your child throughout the day. This is especially important if you know you are going somewhere or doing something that causes a higher level of anxiety for your child. Using language that their teachers use, such as First, Then statements can help, too!
Give some warning time before a transition- Just as important as having a schedule is letting your child know how much time they have left of something, especially when they are engaged in a highly preferred activity. Letting your child know they have five minutes left of a preferred activity may help with transitioning away from something they are engaged in. Setting a timer and then following through with the direction may be hard fought against at first, but remaining consistent will help your child know that when you say it is time to move on, that’s what they need to do.
Give your child choices- This might not mean what you think it means! Oftentimes, students on the autism spectrum are anxious because they do not have control of the situation. For instance, if your child is off schedule or is just grumpy and is having a hard time getting dressed in the morning, laying out two parent-approved outfits and letting them choose might get you farther than insisting they wear the blue shirt with red shorts. If you have two places to go and the order doesn’t matter, letting your child choose where to go first can lead to a smoother transition from home. Your child isn’t happy with the food on their plate? Giving the option of which to take a bite of first may get some of that food you just spent an hour making into their belly.
Now that we have looked at some ways that your child’s behavioral progress can remain steady over the summer, let’s think about all that academic progress they made over the year. Although we know that ASD is a social disorder, we also understand that it can impact learning. Many students with autism have to work significantly harder than their typically developing peers to retain the same information. Three months off from learning can lead to several months of academic regression (loss of skill). Here are some things you can do to help your student stay on track for the following school year:
Read, read, read!- Have your student read, read to them, and let them see you read. Most libraries offer a summer reading program, free of charge, for students and adults. Who doesn’t like to get prizes for reading? You could also start an in house book club where you read the same book your child is reading and discuss the book together. Asking your child wh- questions about what they have read or what you have read to them helps build on their comprehension skills. Don’t worry too much if your child wants to read books that seem too easy or only wants to read graphic novels. Any reading is good reading!
Check your student’s backpack- Anyone here guilty of hanging up the backpack on the last day of school and then forgetting about it (and the contents- including that last day of school lunch!) until the week before the next school year starts? If you are, you are not alone! A lot of teachers are now sending home packets of optional work that can be done throughout the summer to stay on top of skills learned over the course of the past year. Our teachers at Oakstone Academy are adept at sending home work that matches the academic ability of each student, rather than printing an “INSERT GRADE LEVEL HERE” packet and sending it home with everyone. As students get older, there may even be assigned work to complete for the next year. Checking for that now will save everyone a headache the night before school starts!
Practice writing over the summer- Have a preschool student who is just learning that what comes from the pencil has more meaning than just scribbles? Play tic-tac-toe to practice the pre-writing skills of straight and curved lines. Have a young learner who just recently learned to sound out words? Have them help write the grocery list. It may take longer, but they will have a sense of ownership and get some practice writing- and may not grumble as much when having to leave their video game to go with you to the grocery store. Older writers can write letters or emails to grandma and grandpa, keep a summer journal, or write a response about the book they are reading. If writing by hand is stressful, working on typing skills can really help. Typing.com is a great free resource to teach typing.
Without a doubt, one of the biggest deficits our students on the spectrum encounter is the social aspect of the disorder. When students are immersed in a social environment, like at Oakstone Academy, we see them make eye contact, take turns, communicate (either verbally or through a communication device), and make friends. With summer comes fewer opportunities for students to be immersed in a structured social setting, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for them to continue to practice and hone those social skills they’ve worked so hard on throughout the school year. Here are some ideas to keep your child practice important social skills over the summer:
Go to the local park or playground- While we know this can be overwhelming for some parents of children on the spectrum, especially if their student is prone to negative behaviors when in unfamiliar settings, the playground is a great place to practice a plethora of social skills. At the playground, students can practice turn-taking, waiting, sharing, having conversations, making requests, the list goes on! If you are worried that your child will have a meltdown, go when there are less people or make it a playdate with a classmate.
Go to story time at the library- Remember the library that offers a free summer reading program? It’s likely that they also offer different story times, free for families to come to. This is a great place to meet new friends and the story times are often structured so that they have the same schedule each time. They often start with a little movement activity, move on to the stories, and then some time to play at the end.
Join your school’s online parent group- Several school parent groups have social media pages where playdates are arranged. Parents of students on the spectrum and those with other special needs often report feeling isolated from other parents who don’t understand the struggles their students face. Who better to get together with than parents who get your child’s struggles? The kids can play and the parents can talk, without fear of judgement if a meltdown occurs.
Look into summer programming at your school- Many schools offer summer social activities. These programs are often more laid back than the regular school day, but still offer the structure your student thrives off of, while keeping your student engaged in social situations.
We hope these tips help you to avoid “The Summer Slide” and lead to a great summer with your student!