The Transition into Summer

By Esther B. Hess, Ph.D.

Dear Developmental Doc:

I feel very uncomfortable sharing a deep dark secret that I think many parents of special needs kids secretly harbor, I HATE SUMMER VACATION! I am dreading trying to figure out what I am suppose to do with my autistic child for the better part of June, July and August, knowing that he will be ‘flipping out’ as soon as the structure of the school year ends. I need help now! Thanks, Evelyn S., Palos Verdes, CA.

Dear Evelyn,

You’re right, most developmental specialists concentrate on advising parents how to help their child with the challenges preparing for the transition back to school with little to no mention on the difficulties that our children face with the ‘freedoms’ supposedly offered through the lazy days of summer. The truth is that the same developmental lags that account for the struggles in September are equally responsible for the melt downs in June. And much like in early Fall, I suggest that summer can be made into an enjoyable experience, if parents take the time to create a plan that offers stability and certainty for their youngsters with special needs. 

  1. If your school district’s budget permits, check out summer school options. While a scaled down program and typically new classroom might initially confuse children on the spectrum, ultimately our kids are relieved to continue within the rhythm of the academic year.
  2. Look for a camp program that fits your child’s strengths. If your child is able to navigate with typical peers, summer might be an ideal time to enlarge your child’s inclusion possibilities. Explore programs that your child has an interest in (animal themed, science minded, etc.) and check to see if the camp’s policy encourages attendance for children with developmental differences.
  3. If you plan to travel during the Summer, pick a destination and stay a while to let your child get used to the new environment. Touring is stressful for most people, but for children with autism, navigating numerous airports and getting use to new hotels can feel nightmarish. If you do feel that your child is ready to ‘see the world’, let them prepare with you a travel book of different places and activities that they will be exposed to, so that a social story  (check out can be created to help them prepare for each upcoming destination. Don’t forget to schedule numerous breaks in the day to give your child a chance to regroup and reorient before the next activity. 
  4. Beyond transition concerns, the underlying neurological issues that create challenges for our children on the spectrum do not go away in the summer. Create a summer program that takes advantage of therapeutic opportunities by considering the addition of an intervention that you had put off during the school year due to your child’s crowded schedule. For example, therapeutic horseback riding is great way to help with awareness of others, motor planning and your child’s posture control, while social skills groups give opportunities to practice the tough task of making and keeping friends, while keeping other people’s perspectives in mind.
  5. Make a regular play date schedule. Not only do our children learn valuable skills by figuring out how to navigate with peers, but also informal social gatherings can offer parents and neuro-typical peers support and camaraderie.

By taking the time to thoughtfully plan ahead, parents can support the transitional challenges of our special needs kids and ‘take the bite’ out of the dog days of summer. Enjoy –and don’t forget the sunscreen! Esther B. Hess, a.k.a. the developmental doc… 

Esther B. Hess, Ph.D. is the executive director of Center for the Developing Mind, a multidisciplinary treatment facility in West Los Angeles that specializes in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of children, adolescents and young adults with developmental and regulatory disorders. Dr. Hess can be reached through the Center’s website,