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School is out for summer. What to do?

Editor’s Note: This week’s Blog contribution is from Leica Anzaldo, Training Manager for the Autism Society of North Carolina’s Training Department.

School is out and while many of us have been anxiously awaiting this day, for others it is a time of anxiety. Summer for children with autism and their families can be a particularly difficult time. Schedules are different, the places they are accustomed to going to each day are closed, the people they rely on seeing each day aren’t there, and many are at home with their parents who now have to scramble to structure an entire day and make it predictable enough to survive until tomorrow. Then the cycle repeats the next day. While this may be stressful, remember that summer can provide an opportunity for new enjoyable experiences that make great impact on the child’s future.

Many summer camps now offer inclusive programs or part-day inclusive programs that can support children on the autism spectrum effectively based on their abilities. Often however, families are fearful of revealing diagnosis because of a history of their child being turned away from day camp. Asking to speak directly to the program coordinator can help. Provide the camp staff with as much information about your child as possible including what systems and structure work best for them at school and at home. Have them meet your child so they don’t jump to their own assumptions about his/her diagnosis. Offering to provide staff with training on what works best for your child and most likely other children on the autism spectrum is another benefit you could extend to the program that may increase their comfort and ability to serve not only your child but others. Of course ask lots of questions. Some camps unfortunately say they support children with special needs but struggle to do so. Ask the camp coordinator to see the camp environment. If your child is going to be indoors for long periods of the day make sure they are in a room that is large enough to accommodate the noise level, crowd and activities of the busy campers. Ask how they prepare campers for transitions from one environment or activity to another. Does this coincide with what your child needs for successful transition? What kind of structure is used in the room, are there centers with boundaries that will make sense to your child? Is there an area you’re your child can access when he/she needs a break? How will they handle behavioral issues, reminding them of course that other children in this age group may also have behavioral issues even in the absence of a diagnosis. What type of training are staff provided, does it go beyond basic first aid and CPR? And, of possible meet the camp staff. Talk with them about the needs of your child then ask yourself “does your intuition tell you that they will be patient, compassionate and nurturing?”

There are also other great community options for families. Depending on where you live your local YMCA may have a day camp option for you. There are several around the state that have wonderful model day camp options that include partial inclusion or full inclusion. In Wake County the YMCA works very hard to make sure they are an option families can count on for support. Another place to look is within your Parks and Recreation Department. Several Parks and Rec. programs have reached out to the Autism Society of NC for training for their camp staff as well as afterschool and regular program staff. Several after school programs also run day camps in the summer. If your child is already utilizing this service during the school year it may be a natural choice for summer. Museums are another great place to research. Do you have a children’s museum in your area that offers summer camp options? How about natural history, art or science an area that your child may already be interested in and thrive in? If your child is interested in sports many sports programs provide the structure and support needed for a successful day. Check with your local soccer, baseball, basketball or hockey complex.

If you think your child may be ready for the overnight experience, consider Camp Royall for next year. Camp Royall is the Autism Society of North Carolina’s summer camp program and it offers a unique experience to individuals on the autism spectrum of all ages and ability levels. Camp staff receive extensive training and are there because they love supporting individuals on the spectrum. Each year I provide support to camp staff during training week and am consistently blown away by their compassion, drive and dedication. Sending your child away for a week may seem unreachable to many however almost all the campers have the time of their lives and can’t wait to go again next year. There are other camps like this in different parts of the state as well, check out camp Lakey Gap in Black Mountain.

If your child will be at home for the summer it is important to prepare them. Start with developing a schedule that includes expectations at home as well as transitions to activities and events in the community. Make sure your schedule is set up in a way that your child understands. When developing the schedule ask yourself these four questions:

  1. What type of visual cue should I use? (objects, photos, pictures, line drawings, or words)
  2. How long should the schedule be? (how much info. can your child process and use at a time)
  3. Does it go with the person or is it stationary? (is it on a clipboard, wallet, in iTouch)
  4. How does the person manipulate the schedule? (cross out, put cards in finished pocket, take card to area, flip over)

Answers to these questions depend on the individual and his present level of performance.

Also, have a “First, Then schedule” handy for those moments of stress when your child may only be able to process two steps and make sure the Then, represents a preferred activity. The schedule will also allow you to prepare the child for new activities and changes in routine. I highly recommend using it in this way. Prepare your child for vacations, new activities, visitors or the unexpected. The schedule should tell them four things; the activities and their sequence, where to go and it visually represents time.

In addition you may want to set up “centers” around the home that will engage your child and give you much needed time to do other things. For example, set up a water play area outside with a sprinkler, water table with different cups, watering cans and pool toys. You may consider placing this in a shaded area if your child is sensitive to light and/or heat. Inside have a sensory area in the ready. A bean bag chair, exercise ball, and bin of sensory toys that you know your child will enjoy. Much of this can be found at the dollar store. Other stations may include a Lego station, craft station, puzzle station, video game station but make sure you include these in the schedule so that there is some structure to the day that your child will most likely be looking for. If you know you are heading out for the day and this may be difficult make sure you start the day with a preferred activity and end the day with a preferred activity and that this is included in the schedule. Seeing that he/she will get to do some favorite things may alleviate some of the anxiety around the unknown of going out into the community.

When trying something new in the community start with small doses. For example, if you want to try the community pool but aren’t sure how your child will do start by going to the pool and having your child take a look at it before actually going in. Try this in the evening before the day of the event then place it on the schedule for the next day. Also, use calendars that your child will understand to show when school will start again, when you are going on vacation, to visit family, or are having visitors. Just like with the schedule use materials that your child understands.

Also, try scheduling play dates. Try inviting kids over that your child may know from school or the neighborhood. The other parents will be more than grateful and hopefully will reciprocate. It may be that you grow your network of support this way. Continuing to provide as many social opportunities as your child can handle will help keep the momentum going that they may have been established during school. Make sure though that you have planned activities for these play dates so that expectations are clear and that there are opportunities for your child to slip in and out of the play if necessary.

Most importantly enjoy the break. Find ways that you and your child can play together but also find time for yourself. If you or someone you know would like more training and/or support or if you would like a local program in your area to receive training please contact us at the Autism Society of North Carolina Training Department by calling 919-865-5069. Have a great summer!

Leica Anzaldo can be reached via email at lanzaldo@autismsociety-nc.org. For more information about Training Services, click here.

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