The Value of a (Flexible) Summer Routine

Tempted to let your child with autism sleep in, eat meals whenever and play just one more game before bed? An expert from Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers tips for building a summer routine — with a little wiggle room.

All year, we anticipate summer for its glorious long days and a break from rigid school schedules. But routines have their benefits even during summer — especially for kids, says Lainey Rubin, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) and Assistant Clinical Director of Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Sterling Heights, one of 10 Gateway locations in Michigan.

“Structure is important because it establishes expectations for what needs to be done at a certain time, but there’s no reason families can’t strike a balance between structure and flexibility,” Rubin says. She offers these expert tips for a satisfying — and low stress — summer.

Bookend your days with some structure

Thankfully, it seems likely that next fall will more closely resemble our pre-COVID schedules than anything we experienced last year. And thinking about our usual fall routines can be a good framework for developing your child’s summer schedule, starting with typical morning and evening activities. While there might be a dozen tasks that usher your child out the door in the morning or into bed at night, they can be approached with a flexibility better suited to the summer months.

“Pick a few activities for morning or evening that must be done, but not necessarily in the same order. You can say to your child, ‘When we wake up, we will do these three things,’” Rubin suggests. Allowing your child to choose the order will empower them with some independence.

“You can use a visual schedule with pictures on it to offer reminders of what needs to be done,” she says.

After a long day at the pool, water park or day camp, select evening routine tasks that are reasonable for the child who is possibly tired and fussy. If a bath calms, offer this as an option — and consider coloring, comics or a puzzle rather than electronics, which can be stimulating before bed, Rubin suggests.

Build preparation into your own routine

Many kids love spontaneous activities, but for some children with autism, spontaneity can be overwhelming. Because your summer routine may involve activities you don’t do at other times of the year, plan ahead and provide your child with advance notice.

Use a calendar to put a picture of a zoo on the day you plan that visit and offer a reminder a couple of days prior. “This gives your child some notice and gets them excited to see the animals. It also gives you the opportunity to ask and answer questions about the zoo,” Rubin says. “Preparation means you won’t be stressing about your child having a meltdown because they didn’t know what to expect.”

Preparing a backup plan for each day’s activity can help when the weather doesn’t cooperate or a family member doesn’t feel well. “Technology can be your friend here, but if you know this will wind up your child, pull out some plastic bins or bowls and flour or shaving cream and your child can search for toy animals or create a miniature car wash,” Rubin suggests. “It’s good to have options.”

Even if you do have routines established, avoid waiting until the last minute to get shoes on and get out the door. “Build a habit of using ‘first-then’ statements, like ‘first shoes, then car,’ and using a timer can help, too,” Rubin says.

Remember the value of positive reinforcement

Even if your child can be reliably counted on to complete certain tasks, it still feels great for them to bask in recognition of a job well done. Over the summer, don’t forget to offer a high-five, a sticker or a sucker every so often to show your child how much you appreciate them finishing breakfast or putting their clothes away.

“Those little moments serve to strengthen positive behavior over time,” Rubin says. “They are meaningful opportunities to build and strengthen rapport between you and your child.”

Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy services at 10 locations in Michigan. For more information visit gatewaypediatrictherapy.com.

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