My eldest son has autism. He likes routine. School is brilliant for offering structure and routine and so when school suddenly stops in the summer my son struggles. He’s about to leave primary school now and so we’ve had quite a few summer holidays, some completely disastrous and others totally awesome. Between us I think my son and I have pretty much sussed how to get through the summer holidays without anyone being murdered. Although these top tips are things I have learned for supporting a child with autism I think they can be useful for any child, I have also found that in supporting my other children in their recovery from domestic violence a lot of the strategies that help my eldest child to feel secure have been really useful.
1. Plan. You need to do this at whatever level of detail works for you and your child. One year I made a timetable that planned out morning and afternoons for every day of the summer holiday, of course that didn’t mean I was entertaining him constantly, but I planned out when he would read, play on his x box, watch movies. Although that sounds really dictatorial my son really liked having the timetable to look at and follow; he likes things like that. Now he is older he’s learning to use his own coping strategies and he also likes more autonomy so I can now just decide what activities we’re doing in a week and as long as I tell him roughly what’s happening and when he’s fine. Some level of planning in advance always relieves stress and helps stop boredom.
2. Have a plan B and communicate it in advance. If you have an outdoor activity planned you will want an alternative for if you wake up that morning and the heavens have opened. There may be other scenarios you need a plan B for: For example if you’re doing something with a friend you might want a plan B for if that friend doesn’t turn up. My son hates unexpected changes, if I have told him we’re going to the beach he expects me to take him to the beach even if he wakes up and it’s snowing! So I have found that telling him “we’re going to the beach but if it’s bad weather we’re baking” then meltdowns are avoided if I cannot carry out my original plan.
3. Don’t be afraid to use holiday clubs. I know some people with children with autism or adhd or similar worry about leaving them in clubs. My experience has been that most people who run kids clubs are incredibly understanding and happy to care for children with special needs. I always let them know in advance that my son has autism and I make sure I tell them how it affects him and how they can best care for him. I also make sure they have a reliable contact number. I think summer holiday clubs are brilliant; they don’t just give children a more varied experience and opportunity to work on social skills but they give them some of that much needed routine and structure and you some respite. Check out what your local council has to offer, ours is mostly sporty but they are starting to add in more arty activities and nature walks. Also local libraries and museums often put clubs on in the summer. These types of activities usually are fairly cheap. My son also goes on Mad Science camp every summer. It costs an arm and a leg but he loves it, and I feel it’s worth every penny for what he gets out of it.
4. Go for days out. Have fun. You don’t get this precious time with your kids for that long. Before you know it you’ll be shopping for school uniform and setting the alarm clock for the school run again, and it won’t be too long before they don’t want to spend their holidays with their mum. Days out don’t have to be expensive zoos and theme parks (though if you can run to them they are a lot of fun, I save up BOGOF coupons through the year for the summer holidays) You can go for walks in the woods, for picnics in the park, building sandcastles on the beach, skimming stones in a river. Add in some beach combing or leaf collecting and then you’ve got an art activity for a day at home.
5. Think about dinner in advance. If you have taken them out for a day chances are you won’t feel much up to cooking when you get home. If you can, cook some meals in advance and freeze them so you don’t have to worry about them eating rubbish all summer. You can get home from a day out and have a yummy meal that just needs warming through.
6. Get the balance right. If you’ve got a big day out planned then plan a day at home watching movies or something quiet and relaxing for the following day. I found that too many exciting days out in a row only leads to tiredness, over stimulation and meltdowns- from both of us.
7. Spend time with friends, but not every day. We had a summer where we planned loads and loads of days out with the same friend from school. By the end of the summer that friend was exhausted. I have found that my sons friends are really brilliant and understanding about his autism but at the end of the day they are children themselves and if you spend all your time with one friend their tolerance for your child’s ‘quirks’- especially in the summer when meltdowns may be more frequent might wear thin. I find it best to arrange days out with several different friends on different days. It’s fun to go out with other people, it’s nice for your child to have a friend with them and it’s also nice to have some adult company of another parent. But I do advise to spread yourself widely and thinly.
8. You don’t have to constantly entertain them There will be times in the summer holiday when I throw open the back door, give my eldest his bike and send him off out, or when I leave my youngest in a room with a pile of toys. In fact there will be a lot of times like this. It’s good for children to entertain themselves, they learn valuable skills from free play. The key with an autistic child may be that “playing on your own” is in a specific time slot.
9. DVD’s and TV are NOT going to damage them. The laundry doesn’t just do itself because the kids aren’t in school. If you need to plonk your kids in front of the TV or in front of a movie to get stuff done this is okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You’re normal.
10. Don’t sweat the small stuff If you have a child who for one reason or another craves routine you know they’re going to find the summer holidays difficult and stressful. Children often deal with stress by misbehaving. Whilst it’s important to maintain boundaries you may also think about where you can cut them some slack, so their bedroom isn’t so tidy or they’re not being as helpful as they could be….it’s not THAT big a deal is it. Choose your battles wisely, focus on the behaviours that really matter to you and maybe be a bit more relaxed on the less important stuff.