Autism Unexpected: Summer Routines for Kids with Autism


My autistic son, Jack, thrives on routine. As much as school can be difficult for him, he still needs the day-to-day ritual of getting up at the same time, heading out to school, then returning home after a structured day. Summer presents a challenge, with its long, unstructured days, often with nothing to do.

I am fortunate in that Jack qualifies for Extended School Year (ESY) services, which means that he gets to go to half-day school for all of July. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to keep him tethered to routine. Sadly, that school ends today.

It is hard to maintain routine without an external force that compels you to do so, but if your child is like mine, it can be very worth it. Having just emerged from two and a half days without power at my home due to the recent Maryland storm—which also meant no school for two days—I see how Jack’s behavior suffers when he is left at loose ends.

It’s not that he goes haywire, but he is just obviously thrown off. It was with palpable relief that I put Jack on the school bus again on Wednesday, once his school re-opened, and I could see that he was happy as well.

Now that school is over, I’m thinking of ways to help Jack stay in a routine for the next four weeks until school starts. One of my tactics is to keep the same restraints on TV and video game time that I keep during the school year. It is tempting during the summer to let my kids turn on the TV as early as noon, but my goal every day is to restrict them to the hours of 5 to 6:30 p.m., just like during the school year.

That leaves a lot of time to fill every day. For the past several summers, I have created my own home version of camp with different topics each week to keep my kids busy and to keep their minds working. This summer, we’ve covered topics as diverse as “Where does our food come from?” and simple machines.

Introducing a new theme each week keeps things interesting, but also maintains stability throughout the week. For our food week, we visited farms. Home Depot and the National Building Museum were our destinations for simple machine week.

Along with a planned outing every one or two days, I also plan circle time and desk work with simple worksheets and, often, YouTube videos about the subject at hand. Seeing how it is summer, I stay flexible and will let my kids’ interests lead how these sessions go, but I think it is so important for them to remember to sit and pay attention.

It is summer, after all, so in addition to outings and seat work, I also try to plan a semi-unstructured activity each day. Trips to the park, the library, our backyard inflatable pool, or playdates with friends provide enough structure to help Jack stay tethered, but are free enough that he gets to relax and be a kid.

Speaking of playdates, I use those to keep Jack’s social skills firing so that he remembers how to interact with kids who aren’t his brothers when he heads back to school in the fall. Inviting a child over without his or her parent is a fantastic opportunity for you to work with your child on specific social skills. Not to mention, you will earn another parent’s undying gratitude when you offer to take her child off of her hands for a few hours.

It’s not always easy to keep up the energy to keep things going over the summer. As a stay at home mom, I know that it is tempting to relax and just let the summer days unfold in front of me. However, I also know that those summer days, and the fall ones that follow, will be much improved if I keep my kids, and Jack in particular, busy and on a schedule.

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on July 30, 2010.