Tips for Summer Fun vs Keeping it Routine for Children with Autism and Other Special Needs

Summer fun with a colorful beach umbrellaSummer vacation invokes images of lazy days of going to bed late and sleeping in even later.  There are trips local or afar to take, festivals to attend, and water fun to be had either at the local park or with the garden hose in your own backyard.  Most of all, summer means that as a parent you don’t have to worry about the same old routine that you do throughout the school year, unless you happen to parent a special needs children, and then routine isn’t so easily thrown out the window.  But it’s still summer, and you want it to be a special time.   Through trial and error, we’ve discovered a few tips and tricks to striking the perfect balance between summer fun and keeping the routine.

  1. We always consider what must (in absolutely in no uncertain terms) remain routine items.  These are non-negotiable, and for us include daily AM and PM medication routines, as well as monthly infusions.  We also have several specialist appointments that fall over the summer break and those can’t be negotiated either.  Those medical activities go on the calendar and we plan around them. 
  2. Next, we consider the items that need to stay on the schedule but with which we can be a bit more flexible with regard to timing.  One of these things for us is in-home autism therapy.  We still need ~20 hours a week, but instead of late afternoons we can schedule the hours in the mornings, early afternoons, or longer sessions on fewer days of the week to accommodate summer fun such as Miracle League baseball and swim lessons.  We also try to give Caden as much choice when it comes to therapy as possible; even if that simply means that he can choose to participate in his pajamas.  Heck, that doesn’t  ever happen during the school year, and the specialness of it is reserved for summer fun. 
  3. Another consideration for us is bedtime.  This doesn’t have to occur as strictly as during our normal school year routine, but it does have to remain consistent throughout the summer.  For my daughter, I know that her daily persistent headache pain increases if she varies her bedtime and wake-up time by more than an hour. An hour isn’t much, but it does offer enough flexibility that she feels like she has some summer freedom.  My son, on the other hand, will get up at the same time no matter how early or late he goes to bed, so we try to keep him fairly on schedule so that he doesn’t end up exhausted. 
  4. The same goes for meal times.  We can’t vary those times by much because of the medication schedules we need to maintain, but we can let the kids decide what kind of meal they want at each appointed time: lunch for breakfast and breakfast for supper, why not?  And who says the meals have to happen at the table; why not in front of the television for a change or at the picnic table at the rest stop a few miles from the house.

When it comes down to it, I don’t think summer fun is as much about forgoing routine as it is getting to do different things through the summer months. Because certain things have always been non-negotiable, the kids expect that their medications and home treatments will travel with us if we happen to take a vacation.  They know everyone feels better when some consistency is maintained so we adjust to new time zones and find a routine that works even if it is only for that time period.  Because our son needs routine to help manage his anxieties and autism behaviors, we spend more time in the summer previewing the day than we do throughout the school year because the schedule is going to be different.  That way he still feels safe and secure while getting to enjoy the summer activities.

Ironically, the key to having a carefree summer is planning and an honest assessment about which aspects of your routine you must maintain and which aspects can offer a degree of flexibility.  When the routine is intermingled with pure fun, you can find a balance that works for all of the needs in your family, special needs or not.


(Photo by: Nick Haskins via Flickr)

Jennifer Butler
Jennifer is the mother of 2 children and more 4 legged furry babies than she (or her husband) cares to count. Both of her children have primary immune deficiencies and her son is also on the autism spectrum. Jennifer is a full time Organizational Communication professor whose research focuses on work family balancing. Jennifer spends her spare time rescuing animals and advocating for her special needs children. She does this by focusing much of her energy on service dogs for children and being a school board member at her children’s school. You may contact her on Facebook, on Twitter, or at her blog, Caden's Tale.
Jennifer Butler
Jennifer Butler

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