Summer Survival Guide – Tips From ABA Therapists

Summer can be a fun and exciting time for kids, but it can also present unique challenges for parents of children with developmental differences. With school out and a change in routine, parents may wonder how to navigate the summer months and provide their child with the support and structure they need. You may wonder how to fill in all the hours and make the day go as smoothly as possible. You may be feeling anxious about the loss of school support and routine. Don’t worry – we’ve got your back!

We’ve put together a summer survival guide filled with tips from our expert pediatric ABA therapists. From schedule ideas to sensory-friendly outings, we’ve got you covered. Keep reading to learn how to make the most of this summer with your family!

Establish a summer routine

We’ll start with one of the most obvious yet most important tips – establish a new routine. Children thrive on routine and predictability, so having a consistent schedule can provide a sense of stability and comfort. Additionally, a routine can help reduce anxiety and behavior problems that may arise due to changes in schedule or environment during the summer months.

Here are a few tips for establishing a summer routine:

  • Plan Ahead – Sit down and plan out your child’s schedule for the summer. Include any ABA therapy appointments or activities that are important, as well as time for relaxation and downtime. Here are some free templates, which you can print and fill in with your schedule.

Pro Tip: Try to keep the same general structure each day. Utilize a block system which will allow you some flexibility while sticking to a schedule. For example, you can have a “quiet time” block in the early afternoon where your child can choose from a list of pre-approved activities, or an “outdoors” block where you can go on a bike ride, share a picnic, play at the park, or go swimming. 

  • Use Visual Aids – Many children benefit from visual schedules or other visual aids that help them understand their daily routines. Use pictures, symbols, or words to create a visual schedule that your child can refer to throughout the day. 
  • Involve Your Child – Depending on your child’s age and abilities, involve them in the planning process. Ask them for input on activities they would like to do or create a “choice board” that allows them to make decisions about how they spend their time. They can choose some activities for “quiet time”, or help you make a “Summer Fun” list.

Sensory-friendly activities

The good news is that it’s not difficult to incorporate sensory-friendly activities into your summer. In fact, everything we do involves the sensory system! However, for children with sensory sensitivities, simple outings can cause distress and meltdowns due to loud sounds, bright lights, or unpredictable experiences.

This list provides a variety of sensory-friendly, inclusive events at local parks and museums in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs ideal for children with autism. You may be surprised to learn about how many local attractions have sensory-friendly days, including the Chicago Children’s Theatre, Morton Arboretum, Sky High Sports, Sensory Garden Playground, DuPage Children’s Museum, and even Chuck E. Cheese!

Pro Tip: Your child’s Occupational Therapist would be happy to provide you with specific recommendations for sensory-friendly activities for your child, based on his or her sensory profile. If you get overwhelmed with large lists, ask the therapist for a list of 3-5 activities.

Plan ahead for transitions

Transitioning from a school schedule to a summer schedule is one of the hardest adjustments children on the spectrum (and parents!) need to make throughout the year. Plan ahead by creating your summer schedule and talking to your child about how it is different and in what ways it is the same. 

Some general transition strategies throughout the day include using visual schedules, visual timers such as this one, social stories, and positive reinforcements for smooth transitions. 

Incorporate a behavior or chore system

Incorporating a behavior or chore system can be a great way to provide structure and routine for your child, while also teaching important skills such as responsibility, time management, and teamwork. Here are some tips for creating a behavior or chore system for your child at home:

  • Set Clear Expectations – Be specific about what you expect them to do. Most children cannot simply “clean the room”, they will need specific instructions about what goes where.
  • Start Small – Start with 1-2 manageable chores and set your child up for success. 
  • Use visual aids – Google Images provides a wealth of free images you can utilize when making your chart. Make sure to leave room for check marks! 
  • Utilize Natural Reinforcers – Find the parts of your day where you can request chores followed by an activity your child really enjoys. A popular option is before TV time. For example, their bed must be made and clothes on before morning TV time.
  • Provide Rewards – Consider a reward system that allows your child to earn points or tokens that can be exchanged for a prize or privilege. Involve your child in deciding what the rewards are!
  • Be Consistent – Stick to your expectations and follow through with rewards or consequences.
  • Make it Fun!

What to do if your child hates sunscreen

Summer is all about enjoying the outdoors. However, it also means hot sunny days and the necessity for sun protection. If your child has sensory differences, getting sunscreen on may be a challenge. 

If your autistic child is tactile-sensitive and has an aversion to sunscreen, practice with different types (spray vs. lotion) and different textures. Some children prefer sunscreen sticks, such as Neutrogena Wet Skin Kid Stick or Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Stick. Many swimwear companies now offer SPF protection in their swimwear, including long-sleeved rash guards. 

Our Occupational Therapists also recommend having your child practice by applying the sunscreen themselves in front of a mirror. This way, they can see what it looks like going on. You can also set a timer to let them know how long you’ll be practicing sunscreen.  Start small – even five seconds – and build up from there. 

Pro Tip: Practice ahead of time and be patient. Don’t wait until you’re on your summer vacation or at the pool to put on sunscreen for the first time!

Register for community activities

Summer is an excellent time to register your child for some extracurricular activities in your community. These can provide a great opportunity to practice socialization and allow your child to apply the skills they have learned in therapy. 

Many parents feel anxious about enrolling their special-needs child into park district activities. However, most park districts are ADA-compliant and have an Inclusion Policy that offers inclusion services and special accommodations. When registering for an activity, check the box that special accommodations are needed. Your park district will coordinate with your Special Recreation Association to provide your child with the appropriate services. They can even assign an aid to assist your child with the activity. 

Illinois has a variety of Special Recreation Associations with inclusive activities and groups. Below are some in the Chicago Suburbs. You can view a complete list of Illinois towns and their Special Recreation Associations here.

Don’t forget about your own mental and physical health

With the lack of school-day structure, many parents find it hard to take care of themselves over the summer months. There is simply less kid-free time. While we know that self-care can be a sensitive topic for parents with limited time, it is absolutely crucial for surviving the summer months. Remember that raising your child is a marathon, not a race. Burnout can be a huge problem for any parent, but especially parents who have children with developmental differences. Yoga and meditation can be a great way to wind down at night after the kids go to bed, and you can find plenty of guided videos for beginners on YouTube.

Pro Tip: Start a journal and write down two things each night about your day that went well. This will get your brain focusing on the positive before falling asleep and will do wonders for your mood the next day.

If you feel like you need more support, Westside offers Parenting and Marital Counseling. The sessions are available in-person or virtually. For more information, call (815) 469-1500 or visit our Parent Support site

In addition, if your child receives pediatric therapy services, please talk to your child’s therapist about any concerns you have about the transition into summer. They can offer creative strategies to help, including visual charts/schedules for you to use at home.  

If you are interested in services at Westside, please click the link below or call (815) 469-1500 and our team will walk you through the process.