Planning Summer Fun for Your Child With Autism and the Whole Family

From dining out as a family to enjoying community outings, summer offers countless opportunities for fun. For families who have a child with autism, these outings may require more advanced planning. One of Gateway Pediatric Therapy’s board-certified behavior analysts, Stephanie Sweebe, shares her advice.

Summer holds the promise of endless adventure. With relaxed schedules, families are all about spending time together enjoying warmer weather. Families with a child on the spectrum want no less, yet it can sometimes be more challenging for them to enjoy summer’s popular pastimes.

Stephanie Sweebe, a board-certified behavior analyst at Gateway Pediatric Therapy’s Lansing clinic, wants parents to know that it doesn’t have to be so challenging.

“I help families take a proactive approach to planning, so that family adventures can be successful for their child,” she says.

Sweebe suggests families think about what fun places they may have avoided in the past and to consider why they did so.

Stephanie also recommends that families consider what their child can do right now and what might be standing in the way of him or her completing that outing successfully,” she says. “I encourage families to consider an outing where they and their child would feel most comfortable and one that they might want to do more often. For some families, it’s simply being able to go out to dinner at a restaurant as a family without one parent staying in the car with the child on the spectrum while everyone else is inside. For other families, it might be a school or summer carnival.”

Sweebe stresses that each family she works with has different goals when it comes to preparing for outings as a family. To that end, Sweebe shares the following tips.

Consider time of day & weather

Success is more likely attained when factors like fatigue, hunger and heat aren’t in the mix. That’s why when it comes to eating out, for example, Sweebe suggests parents to do so at off-peak hours.

“Look for restaurants with kid-friendly menus and faster service,” she advises. “You may not be able to visit a full sit-down restaurant initially.”

She also encourages parents to take the child’s usual nap and lunch times into account.

“You don’t want to wait until your child is really hungry or is going to be overly tired,” she says. “These elements could contribute to non-compliance or tantrum behavior.”

If considering an outdoor venue, Sweebe recommends checking the weather.

“Look ahead, because hot, humid, or colder days may reduce the child’s desire to participate” she says. “Also consider looking into whether there is any kind of wristband or fast pass that can speed up your wait time.”

Pack incentives

Regardless of the occasion, Sweebe encourages parents to pack some highly preferred items for their child, things known to keep their interest. “Pack in some extra fun things you can give as reinforcers, rewards for waiting and participating with the family,” she notes. When thinking about novel toys or activities select items that match your child’s interests. If your child likes to look at books pack in a new book. The dollar bins or seasonal sections at your local store are great places to find interesting toys and activity packs. In addition to small toys  consider a small snack that your child may not always be able to have such as fruit strips or bubble gum.

Enlist support

Sweebe recommends that parents include additional adult family members, friends, or a babysitter in the outing.“Having another adult in the mix allows the parent to take breaks during the outing,” she says. “If you’re attending an event with other siblings, it’s important to have someone there to help you divide and conquer.”

Look for sensory friendly events

Sweebe points out that many venues, like zoos, movie theaters and museums, offer a sensory-friendly day or a time specifically for kids with special needs to participate in an activity. Sensory-friendly entails smaller crowds, dimmed lighting, and more quiet environments.

“These opportunities could be a good entry point for families especially if they haven’t gone out on their own or are just starting with community outings,” she says. “They might also meet other families experiencing the same situations.”

Prioritize family time

While it may seem daunting to plan family fun days when one of the family members is on the spectrum, Sweebe encourages parents to do their best to make it a priority.

“Kids are in school for most of the day and for most of the year, and many also attend after school therapy,” she says. “Their schedules are packed. Summer offers everyone in the family more time to enjoy each other. It’s important to preserve that.”

For more tips on planning family outings, visit the blog section of Gateway Pediatric Therapy at


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