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Summer Fun for You and Your Child with Autism

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Updated July 22, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Many families with autistic children dread summer. Changes in routine, too much free time, and anxiety about autistic behavior can all get in the way of typical family fun. While every child with autism is different, each of these activities can be modified to suit the needs of children with sensory challenges or cravings, issues with changes in routine, and behavioral challenges. Even better, they can be enjoyed with siblings!

1. Go Swimming

First on this list -- and almost ANY list about summer fun -- is swimming. Many children and teens on the spectrum gravitate to water, as do their siblings and parents. There are many options for swimming with your autistic child; here are just a few. Of course, it goes without saying that water can be dangerous, so don't pick up a book and zone out while your autistic child is splashing around.

  • Find a lake or quiet beach and paddle around near the shore. Allow your child with autism to explore the water at his or her own pace. Some children will splash, while others will sit quietly. As a little one, our son enjoyed sitting on the sandy bottom of a lake and observing the tiny fish and birds. Not typical little-kid behavior, but a happy experience for him.
  • Go to a pool, ideally at a YMCA. Y's often offer special times for special needs swimming, and many even have swim instructors with special training. Even if they don't, most kids with and without autism can have a great time just playing in the wet stuff!
  • Get into the surf. Many children with autism crave physical sensations, and nothing beats crashing surf for an intense physical experience. Our son absolutely loves the waves at the New Jersey and Delaware shore! Again, it's absolutely critical that you stay vigilant; we even held both our kids' hands in the surf until they were big and strong enough to stay on their feet as a big wave came along.

2. Take a Hike

Everyone can walk, and kids with autism are often great walking or hiking companions. Some have surprising stamina; others (like my son) are extraordinarily observant of the details around them. If you're worried about your child getting tired, hot, or just antsy, start with a short local stroll. Most nature centers also have very short circle routes available near the visitors' center -- perfect for an easy, fun, family activity.

3. Join a Children's Museum or Zoo

You might not think about your child with autism in connection with a museum or zoo, but when you join -- often at a surprisingly low cost -- you can come and go as you please, for as long or short a time as you like. This gives you the opportunity to bring your child with autism (and your other kids) for short, "get to know the place" visits at hours when other families are less likely to visit (Sunday mornings are ideal). Many children's museums offer cool, indoor playgrounds where your kids can climb and run in an enclosed area, while most zoos have interactive areas such as petting zoos. By the time you've visited two or three times, your child with autism will know the routine, and feel at home in a rich, educational community setting!

4. Buy a Season Pass to an Amusement Park

Many amusement parks offer discounted season passes. This means you can bring your child with autism (and their siblings) as often as you like, all for the same cost. Before you go, figure out what you'll do, and preview the experience with your child. Carefully select rides and experiences you know he'll like, and keep each visit short. If you like, you can build a routine around the park visit, so your child knows just what will happen, and when to expect changes in the routine. HINT: go when others don't -- early in the morning, on weekdays and Sundays, to lower the risk of crowds, disappointments, and melt downs.

5. Get Crafty

Some children with autism are extraordinary visual artists; many aren't. In school, so much time is spent on therapies, academics, and social skills that kids on the spectrum often miss out on art class. So summer is a great time to open that door. You can sign your child up for a class with an instructor, but it can be tough to find that perfect class. Often, a better choice is to create an art corner at home, complete with a range of media and a nice big tarp on the floor. Be aware that many children on the spectrum have sensory issues which make sticky, gooey substances difficult to manage; others may put non-food items in their mouths. So start with simple, non-toxic supplies like crayons, paper, and safety scissors and progress from there. And don't worry if your child isn't an artist: few of us are!

6. Explore Music

Many children with autism have musical talents, but because they're so busy with other priorities at school, they may not have a chance to join the choir or pick up a musical instrument. Summer is a great time to take kids to outdoor concerts where they can move around, dance, or make noise without creating a ruckus. You might also want to introduce your children with and without autism to different kinds of music and music making, by taking them to musical events, playing "dance party" music at home, or even offering them a chance to try out a musical instrument or singing.

7. Get Physical

Fitness is important to everyone, but kids with autism often lose out when it comes to gym time, organized sports, or high energy play dates. Summer is a good time to get physical as a family. Depending upon your child's abilities and sensitivities, you might want to try activities such as a backyard water slide or sprinkler, bike or trike riding, rock climbing (I was absolutely amazed by my son's fearlessness and joy at being able to climb a wall in a harness!), or jumping on a low, safe trampoline. Local playgrounds are also a terrific resource -- not only because they're fun, physical, and often enclosed for safety, but also because they offer such great opportunities to teach social skills.

8. Ride a Train

Many people with autism are attracted to trains; no one really knows why! Riding a real train can be a terrific summer activity, and there are plenty of opportunities to do just that in many vacation spots. There are trains that go up mountains; scenic train rides; train museums that offer rides. There are subway trains, light rail trains, and trains that take you to exciting destinations. There are also miniature trains in amusement parks which can be great fun for everyone.

9. Visit Disneyworld

OK, granted, this is not a cheap or easy activity, and Disney is darned hot in summer. But if you're looking for a destination where your whole family -- including your autistic child -- can feel relaxed and supported, you can't beat Disney. They offer special needs passes so your child need not wait in long lines. They literally cater to your every dietary whim. They provide high and low-energy rides, mellow and intense swimming experiences, and plenty of non-amusement-park options ranging from hikes to boating to fishing to horseback riding. HINT: take it slow and easy, plan and preview every day's activities, and build in lots of breaks and snacks. And do take advantage of Disney services where and whenever you need them: that's why they're there!

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