Caring for those in Need

Summer Planning for Autistic Children

Summer is here, bringing with it beach trips, bike rides, family vacations, and carefree days. While the break from the school year gives families opportunities to make new memories, for parents of autistic children of all ages, the arrival of summer can also present unique challenges. The disruption of familiar routines and environments can be difficult for some autistic children, and limited access to school-based or other support services can lead to regression of skills.

BY Marta Chmielowicz | June 2024 | Category: Summer Fun

Summer Planning for Autistic Children

However, with thoughtful planning, families can create inclusive summer experiences that meet their child’s needs, ensuring that all family members can enjoy everything summertime has to offer.

Here are some tips for planning summer activities for your autistic child: 

1. Summer day camps

These camps can offer opportunities for growth and socialization in a structured and supportive environment – but finding a good fit is essential.

One key aspect of successful summer planning is communication. Before enrolling your child in camps and activities, speak with the organizers to discuss your child’s needs and any necessary accommodations. This will help you decide whether the activity is a good fit and help you identify any potential challenges. The more specific you are about your child’s needs, the better they can be accommodated.

Eileen Lamb, autistic advocate, mother of three, founder of @theautismcafe, and social media director at Autism Speaks, says that safety is her top priority when choosing a summer program for her son Charlie, who has level 3 autism. Charlie experiences severe challenging behaviors, like elopement, pica (the compulsive eating of non-food items) and aggression, that require constant monitoring and support. Before enrolling Charlie in a summer program, Eileen meets with the camp organizers to discuss his behaviors and makes sure that they have the needed experience.

“Charlie is nonverbal and communicates basic needs with his iPad, so camp employees need to have a basic understanding of how to navigate an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. I also need them to be able to keep track of his behaviors, because that’s one of the ways we understand how he’s feeling. I also like when they have experience with applied behavior analysis (ABA) and know strategies to redirect him and keep him safe.”

Because Charlie is nonverbal, Eileen says that it can be difficult to find programs where he is understood. He often can’t communicate why he is in distress, so it’s important for organizers to have good instincts and lots of experience working with autistic children with high support needs.

“Another good tip I have, is writing things down for people he’s going to be with,  like you do with a babysitter,” Eileen adds. “I give them little tips and tricks about Charlie: like things he likes and things he doesn’t like. I also give them a copy of our behavioral intervention plan, so they have an idea of how to deal with the behaviors, if they emerge.” 

2. Special interests

Keep in mind your child’s special interests when choosing summer activities. 

A great way for autistic children to form connections and build relationships with others is through shared interests. Many children with autism have special interests, or intense areas of focus, and enthusiasm around certain topics, TV shows or activities. Special interests can vary widely among autistic people, ranging from trains and dinosaurs to music and technology.

Understanding and respecting an autistic child’s special interests is important for supporting their well-being and fostering their strengths. Encouraging opportunities to pursue their interests and incorporating them into learning and social activities can help encourage autistic children to engage and participate in summer activities.

Summer camps and clubs often offer a variety of activities spanning different interests, such as: sports, arts and crafts, nature and more. For example, this year, Eileen’s younger son Jude, who has level 1 autism, will be attending soccer camp. In previous years, he attended space camp and chess camp.

“I have two very different approaches when choosing activities for Charlie and Jude because of their very different needs,” says Eileen. “For Charlie, my main concern is safety. For Jude, my main concern is that he has fun and enjoys his interests, because his needs are different from Charlie’s. He can keep himself safe. With Charlie, at any second he can bolt and elope.”

3. Support

Think about the support your child needs to prepare them for the new activity.

Many autistic children thrive on routine and predictability. The shift from the structured school day to the less predictable summer schedule can be upsetting to some, leading to increased anxiety and difficulty coping with change. In these cases, it may be helpful to use visual schedules and social stories before the activity, to show your child what they can expect. Autism Speaks offers resources on how to use visual supports and social stories to prepare children for new events and activities.

If your child is nervous about participating in a summer camp or activity, providing emotional support and reassurance is key. “Jude has anxiety, and sometimes he doesn’t want to go to camp in the morning because he’s afraid he’s not going to have fun,” says Eileen. “We always try to remind him that he’ll have fun, that he’s never regretted participating before, and that if anything happens and he wants to go home, we’re just a phone call away. It’s really just giving him reassurance that, worst-case scenario, we’re 10 minutes away, we’ll pick him up, and he’s safe. At the end of the camp, he’s usually sad it’s over and wants to go again.”

After the activity, your child may need quiet time to recover from a sensory-intensive activity, or an opportunity to move after a sit-down activity.

4. Further options

If summer camps are not an option, consider extended school year programs or therapies to prevent summer regression.

Many autistic children experience summer regression, or a decline or loss of skills and progress over the summer break from school. Whether it's continuing therapy sessions, participating in extended school year programs, or incorporating skill-building activities into daily routines, maintaining consistency and structure can help reduce regression.

This year, Eileen says that Charlie qualified for an extended school year, meaning that he will be attending school for the full month of June. “To get an extended school year, you need to prove that if the child doesn’t attend over the summer, they will regress,” explains Eileen. “It’s not necessarily easy to prove, but since we track Charlie’s behaviors, we could show that the challenging behaviors increased over last summer and that he did regress without extended school .” Once the extended school year ends, Charlie will attend full-time ABA sessions to build his communication skills. 

By following these tips for summer planning and recognizing the unique needs of autistic children during the summer months, you can help ensure that your child has a safe, enjoyable and enriching summer experience.  


Marta Chmielowicz is the Content Manager of Mission Delivery at Autism Speaks, where she leads science communications to advance the mission of Autism Speaks to create an inclusive world for all individuals with autism throughout their lifespan.  

Read the article here.