Summer is a season of changes—and that makes it notoriously hard for our loved ones on the autism spectrum. Even if your child attends a 12-month education program, routines inevitably change: not every student is present, there are extra class field trips, and of course, the heat, humidity and blazing sun pose a challenge too. Visits to the pool or lake and other outdoor experiences can make summer a tricky, sticky season for your entire family. Here are hot weather strategies you can use to keep cool heads and comfortable bodies.
Recognize and accept your child’s difficulty with transitions. Our kids often have a difficult time adjusting to change, and that includes seasonal variations in temperature. Just when a child has found a comfortable cold weather wardrobe, finally broken in those winter boots, and gotten socks to feel just right, it’s time to switch to lighter clothes. But because he struggles to habituate to new sensations, your child may insist on wearing familiar heavyweight pants, and may refuse to switch to sandals.
You can use your child’s tendency to stick to concrete rules by setting up a chart with the forecast and a written or picture list showing which clothes may be worn within a specified temperature range. Layering also can make a big difference, since you can slowly remove layers as the weather warms and slowly add them back as it cools. Also try using “similars,” such as transitioning from beloved Ugg-type shearling boots to shearling-lined moccasins, or letting your child wear the seamless socks she likes during the winter beneath her sandals.
SCHEDULE A SENSORY WORKOUT
Take your child’s sensory diet outside. Summer activities are marvelously sensory-rich… set up a hammock or tire swing in your yard; create a “construction site” at the beach or in a sandbox; set up an outdoor art studio by spreading out an old shower curtain and using paint, clay, shaving cream and other fun messy stuff to create works of art. Write and draw with outdoor chalk, and use water guns to clean up. Play catch with water balloons. As a special treat, visit a dolphin-assisted therapy program such as Island Dolphin Care (www.islanddolphincare.org).
GET IN THE SWIM
Swimming provides even, whole-body hydrostatic pressure most kids like. The pressure increases the deeper you go underwater, so it’s no surprise that many kids on the autism spectrum love learning to hold their breath and dive for toys, snorkeling or eventually even SCUBA diving.
Of course, the chemicals used in most pools absolutely stink, especially indoor ones. Swimmers’ nose plugs and earplugs can help. Swim goggles and masks provide often-welcomed pressure while protecting eyes from chlorine, plus being able to keep eyes open underwater can be reassuring. If your child struggles to enter a cold body of water, bring along a watering can or pail and have him sprinkle on cold water so he can slowly adjust to the temperature differential.
Keep in mind that it may take trial and error and plenty of patience to find an acceptable swimsuit for your sensitive child. When selecting one, consider whether he or she generally prefers loose-fitting clothes or snug clothing that provides pressure against the skin. Some kids can’t bear wet fabric on their skin, and some girls dislike exposing their tummies to sun and wind when wearing a two-piece. For girls, tankini styles offer the best of both worlds since the top can be rolled up if wet fabric is annoying. Be cautious with ruffles and skirts. For boys, compare snug racer briefs and loose-fitting boxer trunks.
Have your child try wearing a wet swimsuit at home. You don’t want to discover that the new swimsuit is intolerable after you’ve travelled far away from home. Of course, the activity may be so exciting that it will override the discomfort, but if the reaction is strong, it’s a warning sign worth heeding. Be sure to take a second swimsuit along just in case!
If your child has trouble tolerating the feel of hot sand, grass or a mucky lake bottom, take along some water shoes. It may also help to do a desensitizing foot massage or therapeutic “brushing” before going to the beach or lake.
SEEK OUT SUITABLE SUN PROTECTION
Putting on sunscreen or sunblock can be a nice opportunity to give your child a calming deep pressure massage. Experiment with a variety of lotions, gels, and sprays to find the most acceptable formula, and apply it about 15 minutes before venturing out, so your child isn’t a sticky sand and dirt magnet!
A word of caution about sunscreens and sunblocks—the chemical ingredients may not be good for your child, so find out the relative safety ratings of popular sun protection formulas at the Environmental Working Group website (see Find Out More). Also consider sun-protective clothing and bathing suits, which are available at many outdoors-oriented stores.
PROTECT YOUR CHILD’S EYES
Eyes also need to be protected from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Because these damaging rays increase the risk of cataracts, macular degeneration and other age-related eye diseases, it’s important to start using high-quality sunglasses early on. Find a pair that makes your child look like a movie star and set a good example by wearing them too.
If your child already wears eyeglasses, transitional lenses that darken outdoors are fine for short periods, but he will need darker lenses for sunnier months when he is outdoors for longer stretches. Look for 100 percent UVA and UVB protection, high refractivity (clarity), classic green-grey (G3) or amber lenses, and add on anti-glare coating. The safest styles wrap around the temples to keep UV rays from entering from the sides. Your child can also wear a wide-brimmed hat to block off downcast sunlight and keep his scalp cool and protected from the sun too.
KEEP THE OUTDOORS GREAT
Picnics and outdoor events are a mainstay of summer, but just as sitting on the floor may be difficult for your child, sitting on a picnic or beach blanket may be problematic too. You can mold a supportive “seat’” in the sand or bring along a lightweight camper’s chair. While outdoor events may be easier for a sound-sensitive child to tolerate, you may still need to bring along noise-reducing headphones or earplugs and whatever other sensory tools your child uses.
If your child tends to become overwhelmed in group situations, take pre-emptive sensory breaks and limit the overall time spent at the outing. It’s better to have a positive experience and leave early than to have a negative experience because you’ve stayed too long.
KEEP UP REGULAR ROUTINES
During the summer vacation, it’s tempting to drop early-to-bed, early-to-rise routines. Many children stay up later over the summer, especially given the extended hours of sunlight. If you adjust wake-up and bedtime hours, take care to not throw off sleep/wake rhythms entirely. If it’s okay to sleep later in the morning, add 10-15 minutes a day over a few weeks, and then prepare to taper it back slowly before school starts.