Summertime Structure for a Child with ASD

Summer breaks are often times when parents of children with autism see challenging behaviors start to increase.  While many kids may be excited about not having school, the lack of routine and structure can really throw off a child with autism.  With all of the activities children have now, I understand parents feeling sensitive to over-scheduling their kids, but children with autism can really thrive with structure.

Luckily, there are a lot more autism-friendly or supportive events and activities out there now.  Even if you’ve been able to find a camp or a class, there’s still likely to be some downtime during the summer.  We know that children with autism benefit from structure and routine, so how do we keep that going when the routine of school or regular therapy sessions is no longer there?

I’ve outlined some ideas below of how you might keep some sense of structure and ensure your child is benefiting from this time off.

Plan Ahead and Create a Schedule

It seems obvious, but without an actual plan, it’s very easy for the days to slip away and for your child to lose that sense of structure.  If you don’t know what the plan is, your child definitely doesn’t either.  Actually mapping out or scheduling the day can be extremely beneficial for you and your child.  This way, you ensure that you have a plan, your child knows the plan/knows what to expect, and you can make sure that there are a variety of different things planned (e.g., not playing iPad all day).  Creating this plan does take some work, but doesn’t have to include big events like summer camp or amusement parks all of the time.  Here are some steps to ensuring a well-planned day.

  1. Schedule the regularly occurring events first
  2. There are several things during a day that we all need to do.  Waking up, getting dressed, showering, eating, etc.  Just because the time for these things is no longer dictated by school, doesn’t mean they can’t still happen at a specific time everyday.  Keeping regular wakeup, grooming and mealtimes can go a long way in helping your child keep to a routine. I’d start by completing those things that are a natural part of everyday first.  Once you have those complete, you can easily see where there may be some blank time to fill.

  3. Add in errands you may need to run
  4. I would try to spread the tough errands, like grocery shopping or appointments out if possible. Spring and summer breaks can be a good time to cram all of those appointments (doctor, dentist, haircut) in, but you may be setting your child (and yourself) up for a really difficult day.  I remember those days as a child that seemed like torture.  Most children don’t do well going from one difficult/unpleasant destination to another.  As a parent of a child with autism, you know those errands/appointments that can be particularly difficult for your child.  Spreading these out as much as you can may help.  If your child struggles with these things, you may want to check out our blog article on haircuts and autism for some ideas of how to ease your child into this.  Much of it applies to other appointments, as well.  Once you have those events filled in and/or on the calendar, you can start filling in that blank time.

  5. Filling empty time
  6. Though it seems like our days go way too fast, there may end up being a good amount of time in the day that your child doesn’t have anything specific to do.  Having activities planned and/or items available for your child to engage with is really helpful.  For planning this part, I would try to think in different categories or activities:
    • crafts
    • games
    • independent play time
    • active play
    • science projects
  7. Plan these activities into the day
  8. Once you have activity ideas outlined, plan them into the day.  This can work in a few ways.  You may want to involve your child in the planning, offering choices of what he or she would prefer to do in certain time slots.  I would give thought to interspersing different types of activities.  You want to keep it fresh, give your child breaks for movement, and have plenty of options available.  If you schedule certain categories in a time slot, then when the time comes, you can offer the choices from that category  to your child.

  9. Use schedule to prepare your child
  10. Once you have your schedule set, you’ll want to make sure to prepare your child for any transitions and to know what’s coming next.  If there are some activities that need to get done, but aren’t the most desirable, make sure to include a potential reinforcer (or something your child may want following the more difficult activities). Using visuals to prepare your child can be really helpful.  For more information on how to create visual schedules, check out our article on and free kit for starting Visual Schedules.

  11. Incorporate playdates when possible
  12. Continuing the social interaction that may come from school or daycare is so important, as well.  For more information on planning playdates, check out our previous blog articles on both planning the playdate and increasing social skills through playdates.

It may seem like a lot of work, and you don’t have to be completely regimented about it, but having your day well organized or at least thought out will really help support your child and keep them on track during the summer.