How to Keep Your Child with Autism Engaged This Summer

by Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Strategic Advisor, LEARN Behavioral

What a difference a year can make. Last June, most parents were forced to reckon with the prospect of extended, pandemic-related lockdowns and a summer unlike any since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Now, however, summer has arrived, the sun is shining, and with more than 50 percent of American adults now vaccinated against COVID-19, it seems that we might just be on the verge of a summer season that’s almost normal.

Various studies have shown that, on average, American students lose up to one month’s worth of school year learning during the summer. And while summer vacation is a necessary respite for kids, it will be critical for parents to keep their children mentally engaged to ensure they start the next school year in as strong of a position as possible. What can help?


Take A Trip

Whether it’s a weekend cruise up the Pacific Coast Highway or a quick day trip to that state park you haven’t visited this decade, take the opportunity to get your family out of the house whenever possible. There’s a whole world to explore out there, with lessons and experiences that only travel can teach.

Tip: Try picking out a fun audiobook to listen to during the drive. This will keep your children familiar and engaged with narrative-based storytelling, while also providing your family with a conversation in which everyone can take part.


Find A Summer Camp

Great news: both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have released guidance declaring summer camps in 2021 safe for children!

“Children have missed out on many of the social, emotional, intellectual, and developmental benefits of school attendance this past year,” the AAP states. “During the summer, it is important that children begin to reestablish connections with their friends, peers, and non-parental adults in an environment that supports their development.”

There are few formative, developmental experiences more profound than those found in summer camps. And while it may feel too late in the year to register for these programs, there are still plenty of opportunities. Cities and communities ranging from New York City to Tulsa, Oklahoma, are committing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to summer programs that provide academic coursework and social enrichment. Keep an eye out for similar programs in your area, many of which are sponsored by local schools, churches, and organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.


Make Plans and Maintain a Routine

For many, the abrupt absence of the predictable schooling ecosystem can create a vacuum difficult to replicate. This is particularly true for children diagnosed with autism, who can be negatively affected by sudden change, leading to increased anxiety and frustration. Help ease your child’s transition by maintaining daily routines, such as mealtimes, organized play, and bedtime. In the same vein, be sure to plan out activities for your child on a daily basis—whether it’s a trip to the park or a quick game of catch in the back yard.

Most children have roughly 1,000 hours of free time to explore during the summer. And while it’s not completely necessary for you to delicately plan every minute, some semblance of structure will be crucial to maintaining an engaging, albeit long break for your kids.


Out-of-the-Box Learning Activities

A period with unlimited time allows for activities with unlimited imagination! Keep your children mentally stimulated by introducing games and challenges that force them to think outside the box. Try some of these colorful, sensory summer games to get your kids excited and keep them mentally stimulated. Don’t forget, too, about board games and card games, which can foster not only math skills like ordering, addition, subtraction, and more advanced arithmetic but also communication and cognitive skills like problem-solving and strategizing. This list of kid-friendly card games from Today’s Parent is a great place to find ideas.

As we ease back into socializing and community activities, there are many options to keep your children engaged all summer long. Remember: you don’t have to fill every second of your child’s life with enriching activities, but you do want to sprinkle them in—and do what you can to create a mix of relaxation and stimulation.

For more advice on planning a great summer for your child with autism, read “Transitioning to Summer: 5 Tips to Make It a Success.”