Ah, summer. The weather’s warmer, there’s no homework to argue about or lunches to pack. But while you might be dreaming of long lazy days spent by the pool, for kids with autism or sensory processing disorders this time of year can be the most difficult.
The end of the school year signals a period of transitions, when comfortable and predictable routines are suddenly replaced by change and chaos and long days of everything being different. Some of these extra stressful things include:
- Ending school (with class parties, graduations and general excitement levels)
- Saying goodbye to classmates
- The change in clothes
- Extra hours of daylight (bringing less sleep and more sensory input)
- A new daily routine
- Camp, extended school year or other new activities
- Having lots of unstructured time
- Vacation travel
- Heat and dehydration
- Needing to use sunscreen or wear a hat
All this change can be stressful and disorienting for these kids, and result in more meltdowns, anxiety, aggression, withdrawal or wandering than at other times of the year. Behaviors like stimming, self-harm or echolalia often become more frequent, and there might be a regression of previously learned skills like toileting or language. It can often feel like you’re going backwards just at a time when everyone around you is taking a break.
So the first few weeks of summer can be a particularly tough time for a lot of special needs families. If this sounds familiar to you, here are some tips to help make the transition a little less bumpy.
You don’t need to schedule every minute or do things in the same order each day, but having some kind of plan for what will be happening and when can be really comforting. Even just saying “every morning we’ll wake up and have breakfast, then plan our day together” will add some sense of predictability. Keep visual supports going over the break too, and maybe a calendar to mark off the days or activities.
Be prepared for new people
If your kids will be going to camp, being looked after at daycare, taking classes or otherwise under the watchful eye of people who have never met them before, write up a quick-scan info sheet of their needs to make the handover easier for everybody.
Keep demands low in the first weeks
Go slowly with new activities, try to minimize changes and don’t overstuff your calendar.
Change sleep routines slowly
A rapid change to the sleep cycle of an hour or more is enough to induce a jet lag type effect, so make small adjustments to their bedtime (15 minutes each night rather than all at once). If the longer days are an issue, put up some heavy block-out curtains (or even just peg up an extra sheet or blanket) to help them get to sleep closer to their regular bedtime.
Explain the changes
Don’t assume that they already know that summer means no school, hotter weather or Dad being home from work. Talk about what’s going to be happening, including all the things they won’t be doing like seeing their classmates or teachers.
Transition to new clothes slowly
A sudden switch from the security of long pants and sleeves to shorts and tank tops can be distressing for some kids. Do it gradually by dressing them in layers, or wearing cooler clothes made of similar fabric or color to their spring clothes.
Choose the right swimsuit
Swimsuits can be a nightmare for hypersensitive kids, especially when they’re wet. So if they’re resistant to wear one or tugging on it a lot, check for sensory issues and make sure that they’re not too tight or loose (a rash vest and shorts might be a better choice than a one-piece for girls). The sharp transition between being dry and getting wet in the pool might be overloading for some (try playing around with the hose before jumping in). Goggles, ear plugs, nose plugs and water shoes can also help kids cope with the feeling of being in the water.
Think about sunscreen
Having creams and lotions on your skin can feel awful to hypersensitive kids, not to mention the smell. Look for one without a scent, and try a spray instead of a lotion. If you do use a cream, some kids might feel better if you apply it with a deep pressure massage.
Engage in sensory play
Summer brings lots of awesome ways to get a bit of extra calming input for sensory-seeking kids – swimming, sand, swings, walking barefoot on grass.
It’s easier said than done, but try to schedule outings for the least popular days or times.
Build in recovery time
The occasional day spent indoors reading, watching TV or playing on the computer will give everyone a chance to recharge.
Summer brings lots of extra hazards – swimming, sunburn, barbecues, open windows, fireworks. Think ahead so you can plan for potential danger zones.
Put up a hammock
It’s fun, and swinging is a great way to get calming vestibular sensory input.
Use sensory supports
The outdoors can a noisy and overloading place, so they might still need the ear plugs or headphones that they use indoors.
Don’t assume that everyone loves the same things about summer – eating ice cream, being at the beach and dinner outdoors can be stressful or overloading for some kids. Finding activities that the whole family can enjoy might take some thinking outside of the box!
Look after yourself
Summer is long, take care of yourself so you don’t burn out early.
About the Author
Bec Oakley is a special needs advocate, writer, blogger, and a parent of two boys with autism in Australia. Autism is part of what makes her and her kids who they are, so she’s passionate about helping people understand what it’s all about. Check out her excellent blog, Snagglebox.com.