Q & A: Maintaining a routine for your child with autism during summer break

Children with autism rely on their routines for consistency and structure. With summer break around the corner, their schedules will change, altering their regular routines. Experts from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital Autism Center provide tips for parents and caregivers who are helping their children with the transition into summer.

A group of children kicking a soccerr ball on a bright, sunny day.Why are routines so important?

Routines are important for children with autism because they provide a sense of predictability, consistency and structure in their daily lives. Children with autism often struggle with changes and transitions, and a consistent routine can help reduce anxiety and meltdowns. By establishing a routine, parents can help their child feel more independent and confident in their abilities, which can lead to improved behavior and independence.

How can they adjust to a new routine once school is out?

Families are encouraged to take time to establish the routine before introducing it to their child for the first time. For example, families should consider what tasks or activities they want their child to do, determine the order of activities and determine how they will introduce the new routine to their child. They should incorporate both tasks that are necessary to complete in a day but may not be preferred, like brushing teeth, as well as activities that are preferred, such as going to the park, to build motivation for their child. They should present tasks and activities in a naturally occurring order. They should also consider how they will present the new routine – verbally or through pictures – and whether a timer might be helpful in signaling transitions. Families should decide if their child would benefit from reviewing the new routine prior to starting the routine (the week before or the night before), or if their child would respond better if the new routine were presented in the moment.

How do they cope with transition?

Some children with autism manage well with transitions or alterations to their schedule. However, others have great difficulty with such changes and can become quite distressed. All caregivers should be attuned to the types of transitions that are particularly difficult for a given child and know what preemptive strategies work best to ease him or her into a new situation.

Parents can help their child cope with change and transitions by discussing changes in routine in advance and providing detail about what to expect. To help with this, parents can use visual schedules, social stories and other visual aids to help their child understand and anticipate changes. Additionally, providing ample time to adjust to changes and offering positive reinforcement can be helpful in easing the stress of transitions. Parents should also try to maintain as much consistency as possible in a child’s regular routine (mealtimes and bedtime) during the summertime and try to incorporate familiar activities into the child’s day

How long does it typically take a child with autism to adjust to a new routine?

The time it takes for a child with autism to adjust to a new schedule or routine can vary depending on the individual child and the nature of the changes involved. Some children may take some time to adjust, whereas others may adjust quickly with advanced preparation and knowledge of what to expect with the new routine. Factors such as the child’s age, developmental level and previous experiences with changes can play a role in the adaptation process.

What can you do as a parent if your child is struggling to adjust to this routine?

Consistency is key! Even if your child is struggling to adjust to the routine initially, continue referring to the schedule throughout the day and present the routine in the same way each day. Parents can gradually introduce changes to the child’s routine and provide support and positive reinforcement. If a child continues to struggle, families may also build in additional reinforcement to encourage completing tasks, such as listening to a favorite song after brushing teeth or picking out a favorite snack after cleaning up toys. Parents can offer rewards for adapting to changes like extra screen time or a special treat.

What are good activities to do with your child during the summer and why? When school is out, the daily schedule will inevitably change, and this may be quite an adjustment for some children. However, there are things that can stay the same, and that may be helpful to maintain as a source of stability, such as if a child has a preferred show they watch every Tuesday evening, or if they take swimming lessons on Wednesdays. Summer is a great time to participate in social activities such as playdates, summer camps or social skills groups. These activities can help the child build social connections and practice important social skills in a fun and supportive environment. Outdoor activities like swimming, hiking, going to the park and camping are fun activities that can provide sensory input and promote physical activity. Parents can also engage in various learning activities with their child, including reading books and visiting museums to help keep children engaged and learning.

Consider activities that your child may enjoy doing over the summer break and, if needed, see if they offer a sensory-sensitive option. For example, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and some Chuck-E-Cheese locations offer sensory-friendly days. Some movie theaters and playhouses offer sensory-friendly performances. Also, consider visiting places during off-peak hours or using noise-cancelling headphones if you plan to visit crowded or loud places. It is important to tailor activities to a child’s individual needs and preferences. Additionally, it’s a good idea to plan ahead, communicate with your child and have a backup plan in case an activity becomes overwhelming.

Specific opportunities within the Houston area to explore:

  • YMCA of Greater Houston: offers several day camps, sports, teen programs
  • Boys and Girls Club of Houston: offers day programming/after school programming free for TCHP Medicaid members
  • Houston Public Library: offers in-person and virtual kids programming, including story time fitness, puppet, theatre, STEM club, Lego robotics, etc.
  • Harris County Parks System: offers outdoor parks, summer camps
  • Mikey’s Place: offers financial assistant for specialized summer camps, a resource guide for children, teens or adults with disabilities (available in English and Spanish) and vocational planning.
  • Free, local museums

Families can also click here for other summer programs/camps in the local area.

By Dr. Robin Kochel, associate professor of pediatrics – psychology; Dr. Elizabeth Klinepeter, assistant professor of pediatrics – psychology; Dr. Madeline Racine, assistant professor of pediatrics – psychology; Dr. Leandra Berry, assistant professor of pediatrics – psychology; and Jennifer Reece, behavior analyst.

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