summer activities

Summer Activities for Kids with Autism

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Every spring, I drag my feet into planning summer activities for my kids. I don’t really like to plan ahead and wading through summer camps to find the ones that will work is a daunting task when you have a child with autism.

But I need time during the summer when my children are active and engaged with peers and in environments where they can be safe and successful. So I steel myself and start the process. With a seven year-old on the autism spectrum, signing up for summer activities involves a lot more than time, date and location. I need to know “where we’re at” in terms of challenges and interests and to figure out a good mix of supports for him.

And “where we’re at” changes every year.

Last year the series of half-day camps felt like too much for my son, so we opted for once-a-week tennis and swimming lessons as well as a flexible drop-in park program. This year, he seems up for a little more intensive activities, opting for a sport and a week-long nature program camp.

Finding the right balance between his needs and the family’s is another intricate dance. The past two years, we have been doing more weekend camping as a family, which means weekdays need to be flexible for unpacking and regrouping.

My role navigating support systems for him has evolved. When he was four, I was an especially tender mama bear, hovering and worried. My concerns back then were about recognizing the need for bathroom breaks and, literally, picking him up off the ground when he flopped with discouragement. So I called on Reach for Resources to get an aid to be with him for a week-long nature program and weekly sports activities.

At five, we did the nature program without support because

  1. My son was comfortable with the staff, the setting, and a friend or two who had also registered and
  2. I had come to trust the staff’s calm confidence about and awareness of his challenges. Importantly, my son has always seemed to decompress and become more organized, engaged, and calm outdoors.

I am encouraged by the way we have all grown. I have more understanding of and respect for my son’s preferences and comfort zones. His capacity to think about and name what he does and does not want to do guides us both to the right fit for him, freeing us to try new things.

Last summer’s drop-in park program was a new adventure for us. I really wanted it to work, as I could drop both my kids off for crafts, reading, and outdoor play. But I was concerned that the staff was young – college and high school students. My son was pretty flexible and able to advocate for himself in simple situations (although social situations were still a struggle).

So I created a simple handout about my son to give to staff. It encourages them to engage him with curiosity and creativity rather than react in surprise and with discipline. We had a couple of bumps with his impulsive reactions to conflict or overwhelming situations, but it was successful overall.

This summer looks to be a more intensive support summer, as my son has been anxious, inflexible, and getting into scuffles at school. I have some paperwork from Reach for Resources to fill out and might request an aid to help him self-regulate and walk away from, rather than kindle, conflicts. In light of our inclusion goal and peer social awareness, I will ask the aid to dress like the main program staff and interact with all the kids while keeping an eye on mine. I may also look into explicitly autism-friendly programs for the first time this summer.

Summer planning is like a little dance we start warming up for each spring. Rhythm and balance, intuition, observation, and respect for my whole child help me move with him and keep in step. We have had and will have missteps. We will shift and adjust as we go and, hopefully, invite others into our dynamic, curious, and caring movement.

Author: Beth

Beth is a wife, mother, researcher and connector. Her five-year-old son has autism, and she has a preschool-aged daughter. She has a PhD in Education and has conducted research and evaluation focused on youth and community development. She lives in St. Louis Park, Minn.

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