Autism: Summer Isn’t Always Carefree

Summer is nearly half-way over, but the carefree summer days most of us remember as children and teens is not the usual case for teens on the autism spectrum. More often than not, school and therapies continue. My husband and I are parents to a 12-year-old son on the autism spectrum along with a 10-year-old daughter, who excels in everything her brother struggles with. Tending to my son and his many needs required me to leave my job as a newspaper summers with autismeditor although I’m lucky to have found success as a freelance writer.

While our summer hasn’t been like the carefree ones of my youth, we can get through with a little help. Here are five ways summer is different for teens on the spectrum and how to deal with it:

Learning continues: Many schools have programs for special education students that continue during the summer to help make sure they stay on track with both their learning and skills goals. Many of our teens have skills they need to master, ranging from some basic life skills to starting and maintaining conversations. Unfortunately, my son’s school doesn’t have a program in place so we work with a private tutor to make sure he doesn’t slide backwards in math and reading.

Therapy continues: Just as summer school programs are in place to make sure students don’t forget their academic skills, therapy sessions also continue. Depending on the diagnosis, therapy can range from cognitive therapy with a therapist to in-home sessions focused more on situations (this is where, for example, my son learned how to tie shoes and master buttoning.) The schedule may change and there may be more therapy depending on their school schedule. For example, we switched Michael’s therapies to weekday mornings from weekend afternoons since he didn’t have to be in school.

Schedules continue: My son thrives on his visual schedule. We have a wall in our eating area dedicated to schedules – weekly and daily. If there’s nothing on the whiteboard when he gets up in the morning, Michael gets nervous. He needs to know what’s coming. He also has a list on his iPad of things he needs to do on a daily basis, such as get dressed, brush his teeth, and feed his guinea pig. We also strive to keep his sleep schedule the same as during the school year.

Play doesn’t come easy: Give teens a wide open day and most can figure out what to do, whether it’s ride their bike or go to the pool with friends. Not all of those activities are possible for teens on the spectrum. For example, my son is not a fan of water. He likes to go to the beach and play in the sand, but that’s about it. Michael also struggles coming up with ideas of what to do with his free time (besides electronics; he could play Minecraft all day) so I have a running list of options for him.

Social interactions dwindle: While most teens can count on seeing friends from school during summer vacation at sporting activities or camps, that’s not the case for teens with special needs who may not have the ability or interest to attend. Trust me, other teens aren’t checking with us to see if he’s free to do anything; we’re the ones who always have to reach out. Just like I have to stay vigilant on making sure he reads and gets daily exercise, I’m also trying to make sure he interacts with more than just me, his father and sister. We’ve tried some Lego camps and autism-specific camps in the past to make sure he doesn’t forget the social skills he’s learned in therapy, but have had mixed success.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy summer is here and we can spend more time outdoors – Michael likes nature and is usually up for a visit to the local nature center – and don’t have to worry daily about homework, but it’s far from stress-free. Summer still involves a lot of work as we strive to help my son improve his social and life skills.



MaryBeth Matzek is a freelance writer and mom of two wonderful children, including a 12-year-old son on the autism spectrum. She is interested in sharing her perspective on what it’s like to raise a teen with special needs. You can visit her online at



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MaryBeth Matzek

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