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Summer Doesn’t Mean a Break from Learning


This article was contributed by Leica Anzaldo, Training Manager for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

Many of us are looking forward to the summer: no early mornings at the bus stop, frantic lunch packing, haggling over bedtime… you get the picture. Of course a break from the intensity of school is important, but don’t forget how well your loved one with autism does when there is some routine in place, or how challenging it is to reintroduce a skill that hasn’t been practiced for three weeks, let alone three months. Summer can be a great time to practice new skills in a relaxed environment surrounded by those who know the person best. Here are some suggestions that may help balance out the leisurely summer months.

  1. Debrief with teachers prior to the end of the school year. What worked well this year and what requires some practice? For one student, specials – art, music, computer, library, and PE – have been extremely challenging this year. He doesn’t understand the expectations during these times nor does he have the skills to confidently participate in many of the activities. We asked the teachers to list at least five activities that routinely take place for each special. This summer, the family and ASNC staff will break down each activity into discrete skills, determine which skills the child has and which he needs to be taught, and then practice those skills throughout the summer. Our goal is that by the end of summer, he will have learned at least two to three activities for each special, making these classes more enjoyable for him.
  2. iStock_000006807167_pecsIs there a critical skill that was not acquired this year? For example, is the student still lacking a solid communication system? If this is the case, summer is a great time to teach, because it is full of very motivating opportunities you can use. If your child loves to go the pool and playground, these may be two perfect starting points for a communication system. Once she is consistently requesting these outings using the system, you can add more. Remember, when teaching a new system, only put items on the board or device that are readily available, motivating, and can be immediately reinforced. Also, use fewer icons initially – two or three rather than 10 or more – to keep it simple.
  3. Maintain your child’s schedule. If he has been successfully using a schedule all year at school, it makes sense to continue that momentum over the summer. It will make the child’s day much more predictable, make expectations clear, and prevent him from developing habits that may be hard to break (such as playing Xbox for 17 hours straight). A schedule is also the perfect platform for introducing new activities and preparing for larger events such as the annual family beach trip. For many, the comfort associated with having a reliable schedule greatly reduces anxiety and frustration.
  4. Routinely schedule play dates or outings with peers so that gains made in social skills aren’t lost or forgotten.
  5. Identify the resources in your area that may be a nice addition to your child’s summer plan. Your local Parks and Recreation Department may have specialized programming or camps, and many do a great job supporting individuals in inclusive settings as well. Keep in mind that even camps that aren’t identified as being for children or young adults with “special needs” may be a good fit if they are directed at kids with a defined interest such as LEGOs, iMovie, chess, computer coding, robotics, or geo tracking. Other places to check for camp options include speech or occupational therapy groups, the YMCA, the NC Zoo, churches, and Scouts.
  6. November 2011-10-LExpose your child to a new recreational activity. How will you know if she likes it? Think about what your child enjoys; is there a recreational activity that incorporates some of those interests? If so, exposure is key, providing multiple opportunities for her to try the activity. Perhaps you prime first, showing her the activity using YouTube or other visual tools, and then schedule the activity in small doses at first, building up over time. I know a young man who was really interested in animals and knew all the facts but had never had the opportunity to interact with them. His parents used the summer to introduce horseback riding. They started slowly at first, just visiting the farm and looking at the horses. He moved on to touching the horses, then leading the horses, sitting on the horse, and finally riding the horse. He was quite apprehensive initially, but when introduced on his terms, he embraced it and now rides horses several times a week.

Most importantly, keep stress to a minimum. Your loved one certainly deserves a break; just make sure the break is one that truly matches the nature of their personality, needs, and abilities. If you would like support during the summer months, please contact the ASNC regional services office near you or the Training Department. Have a great summer!

Leica Anzaldo can be contacted at 704-894-9678, ext. 1603, or


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