Why Are Summers So Tough for Kids on the Autism Spectrum?

Frustrated boy sitting on still merry-go-round at playground
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For most kids, summers are a time for relaxed, unstructured, low-key fun.  Or, perhaps, a time to change everything up and head off to camp and family vacations. Most kids (if not their parents) look forward to summer as a break from routine.

Kids and families living with autism, however, often find summer more stressful than any other time of year.

What's so tough about summer?

1. Summer means change.

For people with autism change, even a good change, can be extremely stressful. Most people on the spectrum prefer and function best when they know what's coming, what's expected of them, and what they can expect from others. No matter what you have planned for summer, there's no doubt that it will involve change.

2. Summer means confusing expectations. During the school year, rules are fairly clear. You wear certain clothes, arrive at and leave school at certain times on certain days. You sit in a chair at a desk or table. You raise your hand. If you do a great job at following the school's expectations, you're doing just fine. But what exactly are the expectations during summer vacation? What constitutes "appropriate" behavior at a camp, a barbecue, or summer school? Changing rules can be very anxiety provoking, especially when (as is usually the case) no one bothers to actually EXPLAIN the rules -- you're just expected to know.

3. Summer means "down" time and impromptu events. Most people do enjoy some "down" time -- a chance to relax and do your own thing. Some people with autism really do enjoy down time.  Many others, however, find it difficult -- for various different reasons. Some people on the spectrum, when they don't have a clear schedule for the day, engage in activities that others find confusing or even upsetting (opening and closing doors, flushing toilets, rocking, and other stimming behaviors).

Other people on the spectrum are uncomfortable when they are not sure what's coming next, or how to prepare.  Impromptu get-togethers for barbecues or picnics are another source of anxiety because they just "happen" -- there's no opportunity to prepare.

4. Summer means new settings, social rules, and activities. Many kids on the spectrum spend at least some or all of the summer in Extended School Year or camp programs. Parents and teachers tend to make the unwarranted assumption that kids will just adjust, somehow or another, to summer programs. But new settings, social rules, and activities can be overwhelming to a child with sensory, social, and learning challenges. Even a new set of sounds and smells can upset a child with autism; add to that new types of clothing, unfamiliar counselors and campers, a new schedule, and new activities with complex (often unexplained) rules -- and it's easy to understand melt-downs and behavioral challenges.

5. Summer means vacation time.  What's so tough about vacation time? If summer camp is difficult with its new schedules and expectations, it's easy to imagine that a family vacation could be overwhelming. On vacation, most rules and schedules are put on hold or completely changed.

A visit to a relative's house means following a whole new set of someone else's (unspoken) rules of conduct. Stresses placed on mom and dad by relatives unfamiliar with autism can create even more anxiety.

All of the stresses of summer can make for a tough few months for kids on the spectrum and their families. Often, though, taking the time to prepare your child for the summer -- and ensuring that supports are in place -- can make all the difference.