Coping with Summer Vacation Changes in Routine

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Many children look forward to the school year ending and summer break beginning. But for some children and their families, including those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), the impending change in routine can give rise to feelings of fear, anxiety, and/or frustration. The restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests, or activities common among children with ASD, coupled with an insistence on sameness and an inflexible adherence to routines, can give rise to challenges for them and their families. A change in routine, or any deviation away from the ordinary -- such as from a structured school schedule to an unstructured summer schedule -- can result in an increase of maladaptive behaviors and regression in mastered skills for a child with autism. This may occur because the routine for a child with autism can be a way for them to comfort themselves and bring self regulation in situations that bring upon anxiety/fear. And, as a result, the change in routine can result in an increase in undesirable behaviors which can impact the entire family.

The following strategies may help your family transition into the summer months while maintaining some much-needed consistency for your child:

1.    Plan: Begin planning for the transition and upcoming changes in routine at least a month in advance. You can do this by discussing your family’s plans for the summer break, creating personal goals, signing up for summer activities for your child to participate in, etc.
Depending on your child’s functioning level, preparation techniques may include: 

a.    Priming: a method of previewing information or activities that an individual is likely to have difficulty with before they are engaged in the challenging situation. You would do this by previewing the future event --the transition from the school year to summer break -- so that it becomes more predictable.
Two priming strategies for changes in routine include:

                                              i.     Video Priming: Videotaped instruction to help prepare children for upcoming events/changes. This could include videotaping your own child or another individual going through the process of the upcoming change with the necessary steps to be successful. 

                                            ii.     Modified Social Stories: Social concepts and situations that are explained in a visual format to increase understanding and awareness to the change in routine. This is a great way to explain the transition from school to the home setting (or wherever summer break may take place) while explaining what is expected across different environmental settings.
Modified Social Stories can be written in the first person using your child as the main character coping with change and transition. Once the social story is complete, reading it repeatedly with your child and involving them in the reading will help them internalize the changes to come and how to handle them.

2.    Utilize Community Resources: In addition to planning ahead, get involved in your community. Many states have community resources specifically designed and staffed for children with autism. For instance, you may find some leisure activities such as horseback riding, camp, and art classes that are designed specifically for children with special needs with staff on site that have experience working with a variety of ages and skill sets.

3.    Coordinate with your child’s treatment team: Develop a plan with your child’s behavior team, IEP team, SLP, OT, and other providers outlining what you should continue to work on during the summer months. This is especially important for your child to generalize and to maintain the skills they have mastered during the school year. Your child’s professional team can give you valuable guidance about what to focus on during the summer.
Additionally, maintaining your regular schedule of professional services over the summer months – to the extent possible – allows for some of the consistency your child may crave. Keeping up with your OT, SLP, and ABA services may provide you with an added bonus of addressing additional or different goals since there may be more time during the day to work on them or because new skill deficits arise (e.g. daily living skills).
If your child is currently receiving Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s Behavior Analyst to develop a plan for the summer. ABA has been proven an effective treatment to work on resistance to change and to build routines that reinforce positive behaviors, and it has remained one of the most popular therapies for helping children with ASD deal with change in routine.

4.    Create structure for the home setting: Set time limits on electronics and other activities. Depending on your child’s age and ability, create tasks such as household chores, play dates, academic book work, special parent and child time, community outings, etc. throughout the day. You can alternate between low-preferred and high-preferred activities. Remember that children are used to the structured activity and classroom schedule in the school setting, so aiming to continue or mimic this in the home may help with the change in routine.

Annie Prchal, M.S. BCBA
Associate Clinical Director
Minneapolis, MN
July 23, 2019