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Summer Outings Can Be Fun and Safe for Children with Special Needs
Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, LABA
Summer is full of opportunities for families to enjoy outside activities! Going to the park for a picnic or the beach for a swim can be exciting and fun for kids. However, because summer outings often involve open spaces and/or bodies of water, they can also present safety concerns for parents and caregivers of children with autism or other developmental disabilities. It’s important to know steps you can take to improve the likelihood that everyone will have a good time and stay safe.
Set expectations. A summer outing requires a change in your child’s regular routine – and sometimes even a small change can impact the entire day. If appropriate, prepare your child for the upcoming outing and what it will entail. You may want to make a small portable schedule or calendar that includes a graphic illustration of the special activity. You can refer to the schedule or calendar as you discuss the upcoming outing.
Establish rules. Explain to your child how you expect him (or her) to behave during the outing. Establish rules that are feasible for both you and your child so you are setting the stage for success, not frustration. Let him know that he will receive “rewards” for good behavior. These rewards might be a special snack, a sticker, or access to a favorite toy. You may need to provide this positive reinforcement more frequently than usual if your child is having a difficult time with the new activity.
After you have set expectations and established rules, it is important that you don’t change them without warning. Follow through and deliver what you have promised if he exhibits good behavior. Likewise, don’t provide rewards if he does something you discussed would not be acceptable.
Teach and practice safety skills regularly. When he is outside, your child will not have the same safe boundaries that the walls of home or school provide. To better ensure his safety, it is important to teach him to respond when his name is called and to stop when requested. School staff may be able to help you teach these skills if your child does not already have them. Practice them at home and make it fun and rewarding for him to follow directions!
Practice water safety. Many children with autism and other developmental disabilities are powerfully drawn to the water, but do not understand the dangers. To help keep your child safe:

  • Find the right (typical or adaptive) life jacket that best meets your child’s needs and be sure he wears it anytime he is near a pool, lake, river, or ocean.

  • Always be within arm’s reach of your child when he is in or around any open water.

  • Take adaptive swim classes with your child at an early age. Many YMCAs and parks and recreation departments offer these classes. If your child has difficulty learning conventional swimming strokes, teach him drown-proofing, a water survival technique that will help keep him afloat until help arrives.

Finally, make sure that any special summer activities you may plan do not push your child beyond his limits. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot go on a summer outing for a full day. It might mean, however, that you need to take breaks during the day. Keep in mind that a change in routine, or a new experience such as building a sandcastle, can be very tiring for a child with special needs. If your child is non-verbal, pay close attention to signs that he may need a break from the sun or water. This might mean taking him into an air-conditioned store or a restaurant, or giving him access to his favorite (and familiar) toy or item.
Other suggestions that may make your outing more enjoyable include: packing extra clothing in case your child needs an additional layer or needs to change clothes for any reason; bringing along some headphones if he is sensitive to unfamiliar sounds and noises; and hiring a babysitter or an aide to assist you.
With careful planning and attention to detail, you can help ensure that a summer outing is a fun and safe experience for the entire family.
Sarah Helm, M.A., BCBA, LABA, is the Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in West Springfield, Mass. She can be contacted at