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As the school year winds down, I hear many of my parent friends lamenting the long summer ahead.  Summer vacation can be an even bigger challenge for parents of kids with special needs. I am the lucky mom of two amazing daughters:  Lizzie, my fifteen year-old aspiring actress with Asperger’s, deals well with transitions and activities, but is easily bored with downtime.  Caroline, my spritely thirteen year-old with autism, loves the rituals of school and would rather stick to a few favorite activities.

Summer, therefore, presents a “spectrum” of challenges for me.   How do I meet all their competing needs without losing my mind?  Can’t be done, at least not every day.  So I just do the best I can, and tell myself that a little summer slacking is in spirit with the season.

I try to manage summer through two complimentary strategies.

  1. The first is reasonable planning, keeping in mind my girls’ strengths and challenges.
  2. The second is to surrender to the temporary free spirit of summer, relieving myself and my girls of the high expectations that stress and consume us throughout the school year.  Summer activities should be a fun respite from the regular school year.

Summer Camp Options
If your child is thrown by all the unstructured time of summer, here are some suggestions from my personal experience.

  • My first suggestion is to access the summer programs offered by your school district.   Hopefully, they offer a program that combines fun, summer-time activities with the regular schoolwork.  Everyone deserves a break in the summer, so make sure the program your child attends has some pleasurable recreational and social activities scheduled.
  • If the school doesn’t offer anything appropriate, get in touch with your local YMCA and inquire if they have a summer program.  Many YMCA chapters offer programs specifically designed for children with autism and other special needs. The YMCA can also offer swimming lessons which are essential for every child, and most kids love the opportunity to be in the pool.
  • You might want to contact your local chapter of the Autism Society or another special needs organization in your area to see if they offer any summer programs.
  • Depending on your budget, there are also a host of privately-owned, special needs summer camps.  They are often pricey, however, and usually fill up early, so at this point you may find you are out of luck.
  • If you have an older child who can fly solo at lessons or a camp, then encourage your child to pursue those interests.  As Temple Grandin always points out, pursuing their interests and talents provides our children with opportunities for friendship and builds their self-confidence.
  • This summer Lizzie is participating in a musical theater day camp that lasts three weeks.  If you haven’t investigated theater for your Asperger’s child, do it!  Lizzie’s participation in theater has helped her grow tremendously.  An added bonus is that theater kids are generally really welcoming and kind.
  • If none of these options work for you, or if your child’s summer program still leaves you with time to fill, your best bet is to create your own “camp” schedule at home.

Creating Your Own Summer Camp
When my daughter Caroline was younger, she used to participate in the school district summer day camp program.   The program was designed for children on the spectrum, and since Caroline has autism, it seemed a perfect fit.  However, a few years in, the program was made up almost entirely of boys and many of them had significant behavioral challenges.

Caroline is a very mild, compliant child, and she was having a lot of anxiety at the day camp, so I stopped sending her.  Unfortunately, that was and is the only special education program offered by the school district.  Caroline’s verbal and social challenges make it impossible for her to participate independently in a typical camp program, so I had to improvise.  I created our own summer “camp” program: “Carebear Camp.”  Caroline and I have been doing it for the past several summers.

  • At the beginning of the summer, Caroline and I make a jumbo calendar of July and August.
  • We fill in all the special events planned: vacations, family parties, etc.
  • We then choose two activities to keep her occupied and happy. This summer for Caroline, it’s swimming lessons and trumpet lessons.
  • The “camp” action does not have to be non-stop, just enough to give your weeks structure and purpose. Our schedule provides a couple of days of activities per week, combined with some relaxation time for both of us.
  • We have “Free Friday” which is a day when we do something special – like go to Friendly’s for lunch or visit a friend.
  • Caroline can see upcoming events on the calendar which seems to allow her to relax and enjoy her free time.  I think many of our kids feel calmer if they simply know what is coming next.

Remember, summer is a short season and you can only do so much.  Plan some summer camp options, but also leave some time to just rest and relax. School will resume before you know it, so let summer be a reprieve from all those pressures.  In my next article I will share some tips for taking summer vacations, and follow that up with another article offering some suggestions to help you and your child enjoy those lazy summer afternoons at home.