As summer approaches, no doubt many opportunities for your child to attend summer day camps begin to appear. While these camps are often a welcome idea for parents who need to maintain a strict work schedule throughout the summer, they also provide an excellent opportunity for children to further develop and hone their social skills while maintaining consistent applied behavior analysis (ABA) services throughout the summer.
It’s impossible to maintain the same routine and structure that you’re used to throughout the school year, but as parents, you can quickly adopt similar interim routines in the summer. This helps your child know what to expect over the summer, gives them an opportunity to work on new skills, and adequately prepares them for the routine of the upcoming school year so that it’s not a shock.
Read on to learn more about why summer camps are a great idea for those with autism, how you can incorporate ABA into summer camps, and why it’s important to maintain consistency year-round.
Why Are Routine and Consistency Important?
Studies have shown that routine and consistency are very important to children with autism—and this stretches over many different environments, such as home, school, and in the community. Having a familiar routine and knowing what to expect can help children with autism function better with life skills, socially, and emotionally. Why is this so?
Generally, humans do well when they have routine and consistency, but both can be imperative to a child with autism. Overall, routines help maintain a strong caregiver-child connection, improve cooperation and reduce power struggles, and create an environment where the child feels safe and comfortable, with very few surprises.
The world is chaotic and it can appear even more so to a child with autism. Regular routines and schedules help drown out some of the chaos and can reduce anxiety. Also, when a child feels safe and has less anxiety, they are typically more open to learning new skills.
Routine and consistency are important at home, however, routine comes naturally in many cases. For example, your child probably has a set time when they get up and go to bed, for meals, for bath times, etc. Keeping consistent routines when it comes to your child’s therapy is important as well. The summer months look slightly different with most children out of school, but it’s still possible to maintain a routine that’s in line with your child’s ABA services.
What Is the Importance of ABA Consistency?
If you’ve ever played sports or been active in fitness, you learn certain new skills as you go along. Muscles have memory, such as the brain does. You know well enough that if you take a few weeks off from training that you won’t be able to pick up where you left off immediately. It’ll take a few days to get back up to speed. When you do go back to the gym or training, you may feel frustrated. If you do this too often, you repeatedly find yourself at the starting point.
In a way, ABA is very similar. Your ABA care team will develop an individualized treatment plan for your child shortly after evaluation, with initial measurable goals. As your child works through therapy and gains new skill sets, they’ll work on more skills that complement the learned ones. It can be difficult for the child (and the parents) when ABA is inconsistent. While “regression” isn’t quite the appropriate word, children can lose ground on emerging skill sets quickly if therapy isn’t delivered on a consistent basis.
Your child may receive ABA in school, in clinic, and/or at home, but parents can help ensure that ABA is delivered regularly and consistently. Children should attend every session with little to no cancellations. If there’s a change in routine, such as attending another medical appointment, ask your therapist to join you and work on social skills or other behaviors during the outing. This is a terrific chance to generalize new skills in a new setting.
Incorporating ABA during the regular school year can be very intuitive, as routines are more laid out, particularly during the week. Summertime can pose a challenge. Families want to take vacations. Should we register for summer camp? Should we register for the extended school year (ESY)? Should my child just get a “break?” Where does ABA fit into all this?
First of all, if your child is offered Extended School Year (ESY) services, make sure they attend if possible. Think of all the areas going to school and ABA help with—these needs don’t “take a break” in summer:
- Consistent hygiene
- Attention to domestic chores and capabilities
- Time management and punctuality
However, ESY is never the entire summer, and it’s only on certain days and times during the week. Summer camp may be a great option for your child, but you may have concerns over how to incorporate ABA into the schedule and general concerns if your child with autism attends a “neurotypical” camp.
ABA and Summer Camp
You may have the opportunity to look into different types of summer day camps for your child. Your occupational, speech, or ABA therapy providers may offer summer camps at their locations, which is always a good option. Depending on your insurance and the services offered, sometimes summer camps that are focused on children with autism are covered by insurance. You may also be aware of local summer camps in your school district or through community activities. These camps may offer more hands-on, nature activities than in-clinic activities, so you may want to consider that.
However, you may have concerns even if your child attends a camp specifically for children with special needs. Instead, this is a great time for your BCBA and RBT to attend summer camp sessions to ensure old skill sets don’t get lost and foster new skills, particularly social skills.
In fact, if deemed medically necessary and with insurance approval, you may even be able to increase your ABA hours during the summer, providing a protective and consistent routine. For example, your ABA clinician may be able to attend summer camp hours in addition to in-home sessions, perhaps with more in-clinic and community hours as well. This can also be in conjunction with ESY services, offering a complete, well-rounded summer schedule. And—you’ll still have time to take that vacation, bringing your parental ABA knowledge with you. While consistent ABA greatly benefits your child, it can also relieve some of your stress as well. Parenting during the summer can be difficult.
What Are the Benefits of Summer Camps and ABA?
Besides providing a predictable routine for your child, there are benefits to combining summer camps and ABA therapy, such as:
- Building social skills. It’s a natural byproduct for your child to work on social skills in school, but remember that school primarily focuses on academics. Summer camp is an excellent opportunity for your child to focus more on building social skills with confidence. Perhaps your child struggles with aggression, shyness, or anxiety during social interactions. Summer camp structure—with ABA support—is a great way to build general social skills and prepare for the school year ahead.
- Less screen time & more outdoor time. Summer camp is a great way to get away from videos, music, media, and games. Even if you choose a summer camp that’s not outdoor-focused, there will be plenty of outdoor activities, such as water day or field day. This gives your child more opportunities to bond with nature and the outdoors away from the screen, and outdoor team-building activities certainly help with social skills.
- Confidence. Even though your ABA clinician may be present in part for support, your child is likely unaware of this. Tackling new activities and challenges without their parents present can give a better sense of confidence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency. Some children with autism in their teens are at the age where learning independent life skills is one of the primary goals.
- Everyone gets a break. Your child is engaged in summer camp with activities they enjoy that aren’t so academic-heavy, and you, as parents, get a break to work or take care of other needs.
- Prepares for the school year. The sense of routine carried on through the summer, with camp, ESY, and ABA, can offer an easier transition back to the demands of the school year.
If you do have an extended vacation planned and summer camp isn’t an option, talk to your ABA care team about telehealth sessions. Keeping in regular contact with your child’s ABA clinician while routines are broken can help with difficult situations that may arise while you’re away. It’ll also offer your child that sense of consistency through regular sessions with their ABA team.