Keeping Summer Safe & Enjoyable for Children with Autism

By Matthew Sharp, M.Ed.

Long days filled with activities. New smells and sounds, from the beach and boardwalk, treats to fireworks and festive parades. Quality time with friends and relatives living outside the area. These may not seem like red flags to most people, but for children with autism the hallmarks of summer often invite unpredictability and stress and impact not only them but also their parents and siblings. However, with some simple planning, you can ensure that your child will not only be safe but will also feel comfortable during the summer months.


Plan Ahead
Create a packing list, taking your child’s sensory needs into consideration. Where will he/she be staying? Should you bring along a sound machine to facilitate sleep? Involve your child by watching a movie or reading a story about your destination.

Avoid Surprises
Create a schedule and review it daily with your child. Forecast any issues he/she may have and plan ahead so you can hopefully bypass them. For example, if you are going to have an unavoidably long day, pack something to entertain your child, depending on his/her functioning level. Also, consider allowing your child to choose between two activities. Use a cell phone alarm clock to alert you to potty breaks and check-ins with your child.


To Grandmother’s House We Go
Carol Gray trademarked the term “social story” to refer to stories drafted for individuals with autism to familiarize them with social behaviors relevant to a particular environment. Create a social story or picture book for your child about his/her relative. This will help the child learn who the relative is and be more comfortable around another family member, making the visit more enjoyable for both parties.

On this type of summer trip, you may be able to exert more control. Contact the relative your family is visiting in advance of your arrival and share any specific needs or environment-related requests, such as sleeping and play spaces, as well as sensitivities to smell, sound, touch, etc. Use this conversation to familiarize your relative with your child if the two have not interacted recently. Most important, remember to be tolerant and have a sense of humor, particularly if you are guests in your relative’s home.


SPF + Schedules = Fun in the Sun
If your child will be enjoying outdoor activities like biking, swimming or summer camp, prepare him/her by practicing sunscreen application. Parents should seek an unscented, hypoallergenic variety that sprays on clear and should build time for applying sunscreen into the child’s schedule.

Smart Snacking
Ensure you have packed something your child will eat. If your child’s dietary needs permit purchasing food on-site, consider calling ahead to ask if the restaurant can accommodate food allergies and/or menu modifications. Then, practice selecting and ordering items, and use math skills to calculate the cost of the meal with your child.

Communication with Camp Counselors/Mentors is Key
While it’s beneficial for your child to have exposure to typical peers, make sure you have selected an inclusive, understanding summer program, staffed by camp instructors who are trained to work with children with autism. Share your contact information and ensure that the staff knows when—and when they don’t—need to check in with you. Provide camp leaders with a list of your child’s typical behaviors, as well as what they should and should not ignore.

Check if a mentor or buddy is available, typically an older child who can shadow your son/daughter and provide guidance when needed. Since children with autism often wander, pool safety is paramount. Make sure your child is supervised at all times when near water.


Create a Backup Plan
As holidays approach, develop two scenarios: Plan A if things go well and Plan B if issues arise. Consider an alternate activity for your other children, particularly if you need to act on Plan B.

Build Excitement
Similar to the social story to prepare your child for being around a new relative, talk about the upcoming holiday ahead of time, sharing details about what will be happening (and why) with your child. Though it may mean a disturbance in his/her normal routine, try to make the holiday something your child wants to take part in.


Seek Out Community Resources
Whenever possible, create visual schedules to share with your child, showing everything that’s going on in his/her day or week. Utilize the local library, YMCA, swim club or extended school program to get your child involved in activities that provide learning opportunities.

Keep Learning Opportunities in Mind
Work with your child’s teacher in May and June to develop learning packets and activities you can complete with your child over the summer. Remember the importance of unstructured time as well, and set up a safe play area where your child can relax while you take a break.

Planning ahead, creating and sticking to a schedule, building in breaks, allowing for choice and understanding/anticipating your child’s sensory needs will help ensure that summer is an enjoyable time for the entire family.

About the Author

Matthew D. Sharp, M.Ed., is currently the Head of School at Haddonfield Friends School, in Haddonfield NJ. For the past 15 years, Matthew has served as Principal at various K–12 schools and institutions in our South Jersey area. He has been pivotal in bringing about effective educational transformation through strengthening curriculum cohesiveness and continuity, establishing processes for understanding the “whole student” and teaching to the student, building strong relationships with parent and extended communities, and creating transparency of classroom and administration. Matthew has received his BS from The College of New Jersey, M. Ed. from Wilmington University, and is in the dissertation phase of his Ed. D in Educational Leadership from Rowan University. Matthew can be reached at [email protected] and 856.429.6786 x215

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The Autism Society is the oldest and largest grassroots organization within the autism community.

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