I dread summer vacation. I never know what to plan for my family or how to have fun while keeping enough structure. My oldest son and I are both on the autism spectrum, so it is hard to plan fun events for the entire family, given our preference of routine and our sensory sensitivities. I have already found myself letting us fall into unhealthy habits and allowing my son to have all the screen time he wants without any structure, which I know is causing a lot of stress within the family. As a result, we are not planning any vacations and have not signed up for any camps. Any ideas?
Dear Summertime Blues,
Summer can be a challenge for many folks on the spectrum, but there are ways to make it easier. One idea is to think of summer as a staycation. How can staying home and in familiar places be a vacation from the school year stressors and incorporate healthy choices for your family?
I suggest starting by thinking about your family’s routine. It may be good to have a family planning meeting regarding a typical summer day, fun days, or special outings. You can pull from what works during the school year, and ask everyone what they think a typical fun, relaxing, healthy summer day routine should be. Make a Plan A and Plan B help prepare for unexpected things that might come up. You can also make a calendar listing the options for new activities, including sensory friendly events. Remember to schedule planning time for the new activities.
Have there been activities that you’ve enjoyed every summer? If so, make sure to keep those a part of this summer. For example, if on the fourth of July you always see the fireworks at the same place, keep that as part of this year’s routine, even though you are not going anywhere special this year. If you have close friends or family who like spending time with the kids, try setting up some days that are adventures for them so you and your spouse can take a little break. Having some time to yourself will help keep you refreshed for summertime activities.
Once you have planned what outings you'd like to take, it's important to prepare before you head out. Make sure to have a bag of things that may be helpful if things get too overwhelming, such as favorite fidgets, headphones, special treats, or even paper and pen in a bag so a schedule or choices can be written down if things are too overwhelming.
If the heat is a challenge, research indoor, air conditioned activities that involve water. Cooling towels and personal fans are things that may be helpful. Swimming is often popular, but it's a good idea to consider whether sand, sunscreen, and swimwear are potential challenges, and look for alternatives (e.g. non-scented sunscreens, or a public pool rather than a beach).
It may be important to remind yourself it can be at least two times harder to change back from bad or unhealthy habits or to give up something than to gain something. So, if screen time is quickly increasing, to be most of the day it may be good to make a plan now. Revisit family values or create a social story to talk about healthy screen time and your values. Maybe include how it is easy to create a habit of being on the computer all day but hard to break the habit of being on the computer all day. Try to remain empathetic to the idea that summer is a break, and the screen may be a very preferred place, and it is hard not to escape into the screen all day. It may be helpful to get an agreed upon schedule for screen time and schedule non-screen time.
You can also consider your son's special interests. Is there a project you can take on involving these interests? Maybe make a challenge for each member of the family to come up or design a game. If you feel at a loss use the resources, you have. Google your son’s interests, look at summer indoor activities offered for one day or museums. Pinterest is a great resource for some fun sensory DIY projects. Visuals, as well as a Plan A or Plan B are a great way to help your family by giving them choices and reminders.
Remember that things may not go as planned, and summer may come with some challenges but can be fun and relaxing with a little bit of planning even if the planning starts now.