Summer, with its warm sunshine and relaxed days, is a welcome respite from Michigan’s winter months. Even though school is out and our days are often less structured, the work of parenting a child with autism is ever-present. And while many children continue their therapy schedules through summer, there are ways that parents can reduce potential stress during this season, says Jennifer Badalamenti, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, the Madison Heights-based ABA therapy center for individuals with autism and other developmental needs.
Here, we share Dr. Badalamenti’s tips for creating a low-stress summer for you and for your child.
Take time to plan
Summer may invite a “take it as it comes” attitude, but creating a summer routine can reduce your own stress level because it provides a way for everyone in the family to know what to expect.
“Everyone benefits from some advance planning and kids with autism are often very accustomed to following a schedule. It helps a lot to combat anxiety,” says Dr. Badalamenti.
Whether you use pencil and paper, a grid with Velcro-backed pictures, or an app on your phone, plan your day in one-, two- or three-hour segments. Plan for activities, breaks, meals and snacks, but how much you plan is entirely up to you.
“Creating a plan ahead of time really helps to set the tone for the day. You can put a variety of things into the schedule and plan the whole day, or maybe just the morning or afternoon,” Dr. Badalamenti suggests. “If the idea of planning the whole day is overwhelming to you, start with baby steps and just plan a segment of the day.”
Encourage your child to help with the plan and offer choices for activities. “This is a very common technique to help increase independence and self-management skills. Some kids are very good at helping to develop their schedule,” she says.
Maximize outdoor time
No matter what, incorporate outdoor time into each day’s schedule. “Being outside is super healthy for everyone and any activities that can include being outside will really help to regulate your child and reduce your own stress, too,” says Dr. Badalamenti.
This shouldn’t require any additional work. Instead of letting the dog run around the backyard, maybe plan to take a walk with your child and the dog. Stop at the park and play for a planned amount of time, then move on to the next activity in your schedule.
Have a picnic at the park or in your yard, or enjoy a snack outside instead of at the kitchen table. Just being in the fresh air is a natural stress reducer, Dr. Badalamenti says. Rainy days ahead? Grab the umbrella and rain boots and enjoy the benefits, even when the weather isn’t cooperating.
Be social, if you can
Assess your level of comfort with in-person playdates and plan some social interaction. “If you have close friends or family members in your bubble, be sure to spend time with them as your comfort level allows. Another option is to meet with friends over Zoom, which allows your child to wave to a friend and play a game together,” Dr. Badalamenti says.
Playdates tend to be more successful if the kids have a shared interest, but work with what you have, Dr. Badalamenti suggests. “Sometimes kids need a little coaching on how to interact with each other. They can watch a movie together and enjoy some popcorn, or they can engage in parallel play,” she says.
Even playdates can follow a schedule with a greeting, followed by a song and a game, then clean-up time before a snack. Giving kids the opportunity to spend time together is a step in the right direction for learning the social skills of sharing, taking turns and talking about things, so try to schedule social time for your child on a consistent basis, if you can.
Learn the value of downtime
A plan that includes downtime translates to decreased stress for everyone, says Dr. Badalamenti. “Anything that targets relaxation is great. Even time for mindfulness can be an icon on your schedule. You can call these mindful minutes and encourage being in the present moment for a little bit of time,” she says.
Plan to model what this looks like for your child. Maybe sit quietly and observe the birds in the tree, or the cars that pass by. Practice mindful walking and focus on placing your feet on the ground. “Teaching kids how to slow down and be in the present moment, rather than in the past or future, will increase relaxation and decrease stress,” Dr. Badalamenti says.
Downtime can include different things each day but still follow a routine. Try art, dance or yoga, even for just 10 minutes. “Kids tend to really love watching yoga videos and following along,” she adds.
Have some goals
“Look at the length of the summer months and decide what goals you’d like to achieve with your child. Maybe you’d like your child to learn to play with other children or learn how to use the monkey bars on the playground,” Dr. Badalamenti says.
Schedule playdates and if it goes well, increase the number of meetings each week. If the monkey bars — and the increased upper body strength that comes with it — is the goal, head to the playground once a week. “Recognize that your child may play in the rocks most of the time, but maybe will spend a bit of time on the play structure, too,” Dr. Badalamenti says.
Flexibility is key — as is celebrating the little victories, she says.
“Understand that you need to take baby steps. If it takes 10 steps to get to the goal of achieving the monkey bars, you may only get to step three. But mastering even those three steps means you have accomplished something,” she explains. “Be flexible because these things can sometimes take a long time.”
Reduce your own stress by taking a big-picture view. “The journey is more important than the end goal,” says Dr. Badalamenti. “At least we are still trying, and by persevering, we are building resilience. That’s something to celebrate.”
Learn more about Healing Haven at thehealinghaven.net.