The school year offers many children a well-known structure and daily routine. Without this routine in the summer, some kids may struggle. Before summer starts, get an idea of what your child will be doing and where they will be. Will they go to daycare? Camps? Stay with a neighbor or family member? With summer right around the corner,and here for many of us, it is time to think about what your child with autism will be doing each day when school is out. Even for typically developing children, the unstructured nature of summer can be a challenge. This is where having a schedule can be useful!
As I mentioned in my previous article Tips for a Successful Summer: Planning Your Vacation, having a daily schedule or activity schedule can be very helpful when preparing your child for a new experience and for managing downtime, and now we are going to show you how to put it to use for the rest of your summer.
Camp and The Schedule
If you anticipate that your child will be going to daycare or camps, start by talking to the daycare or camp personnel to get an idea of what their daily schedule will be. Will they be going on field trips? Where and when? Who will be the adult(s) supervising your child? Is your child familiar with these people and activities?
- Create a calendar of the summer and place visuals on the days they will be at daycare or camp.
- Keep the visual consistent for daycare/camp days.
- For field trip days or days that will deviate from the schedule (i.e. leaving for vacation, staying with grandparents, etc.), create other visuals and place them on the appropriate days.
- Discuss the schedule with your child at the beginning of the summer and daily if needed. If your child needs reassurance and reminding of what the next day will entail, discuss the next day’s activities before bed.
- If an unexpected change occurs during the summer, try to talk with your child and change the visual in advance if possible.
- Reinforce flexibility with changes.
- If your daycare or camp has a daily calendar of activities, obtain this ahead of time and go over it with your child.
- If they are going to be supervised by adults they don’t already know, see if you can get pictures of the staff ahead of time and review them daily with your child, so they know who to expect to see at daycare or camp. Even better, get pictures of peers they may see!
How to Make a Schedule
If your child is staying with a neighbor or family member, more planning may be required. Create a loose schedule for them to follow each day.
The day may be something like:
- Get up
- Get dressed
- Have breakfast
- Brush Teeth
- Drive to Grandma’s house
- Reading/Book time
- Take a Walk with Grandma (or TV time if it is raining)
- Art, etc
You can add time frames to each activity if you would like more structure or leave it looser without hours to allow more flexibility. You can add in “Choice time” to promote your child’s choice making skills. Remember, let them know what options they have during choice time! You don’t want to give them a choice and they choose “Zoo” and then have a meltdown when you explain the zoo is not an option!
Whichever type you choose, make it visual! Use pictures or words depending on your child. For older children, having them help create the schedule can be an excellent way to teach planning skills. For advanced learners, incorporate time management skills by having them set timers or alarms to remember to switch to the next activity. Some children may need a reinforcement system tied to the schedule to reinforce appropriate behavior throughout the day. Create a visual of the “expected behaviors” and after each activity, if they followed the rules, they receive a token. After a designated amount of tokens, they receive a reward.
The Activity Schedule
Another great tool for promoting independence is an activity schedule. Maybe one of the activities on your daily schedule is “leisure time” or “independent work.” This is where an activity schedule can help keep your child on task while increasing independence. An activity schedule is a schedule of independent tasks that an individual engages in, in order, until the entire schedule is complete. The tasks in an activity schedule should be mastered, independent tasks in which your child will readily engage. An excellent resource for evaluating prerequisite skills, setting up the schedule and teaching a schedule is Activity Schedules for Children with Autism: Teaching Independent Behavior by Lynn McClannahan.
Many children on the autism spectrum struggle with the unstructured downtime that summer often entails. Summer time often disrupts routines and presents children with long durations of free time that they may not know how to fill. Schedules can be an invaluable tool to help structure and add a little routine in an often routine-less few months. By preparing schedules in advance, you can set your child up for success this summer!
*Guest Post Provided by Nichole O’Donnell, B.A., BCaBA