Strategies to Reduce Problematic Behavior in the Summer

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

For many of us, summer is a time of relaxation and recreation. For children with autism, though, summer vacation can be a challenging time because of the disruption to their daily schedule. Rigidity is a defining characteristic of autism, and changes to routine can sometimes lead to problematic behavior. This column offers a few simple strategies you can use to help your child have a safe and fun summertime experience.

For all children, but especially for those with special needs, preventing problematic behavior is always an important goal. If you suspect the change in routine will present difficulties for your child, consider methods you can use to help him or her understand how their summer vacation or summer program schedule will differ from their typical school year schedule. Visual supports such as a calendar and a picture or written schedule that depicts activities throughout the day can be beneficial to help children prepare for the changes to come.

When introducing new activities, such as a visit to a park or new destination, consider previewing aspects of the trip with your child to give him or her an idea of what to expect. One way to accomplish this might be to write a very simple story about the trip and include a few photos of the destination. You can read this story with your child, repeatedly if necessary, to provide background information about what s/he can expect during the outing. If possible, you may want to take a video of the setting or activity that your child can watch a few times to become familiar with the upcoming outing.

If your child will be spending time with a different caregiver throughout the summer months, it may be helpful to spend some time “pairing” with that person, meaning you introduce the two gradually, not abruptly. Initial visits should be fun and unassuming, allowing your child to “warm up” to the individual. You want to make sure that your child feels that spending time with the new caregiver is safe and enjoyable. Investing this time in the beginning can make for a much smoother relationship going forward.

Consider maintaining consistency in your child’s schedule where possible, especially when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. Sticking to an established sleep routine can make transitioning back to school in September a little easier, because you won’t have to spend as much time reestablishing the standard schedule. The same is true for food. It can be tempting to allow your child access to lots of treats and less structured meal times during the summer, but for kids with food selectivity issues, it can be easy to lose ground as far as the variety and quantities of food they are willing to eat.

These are very general recommendations; every child has different needs and each one responds differently to strategies. For any behavior you’re having difficulty managing, or for behavior that poses a safety risk for your child, consider reaching out to a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who can help provide advice specific to your situation.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in West Springfield, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit