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How We’re Navigating Summer with Special Needs Kids Who Thrive on Structure

Two Children Running Through Garden Sprinkler
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Ah summer, there’s nothing better.

We’re talking flip flops, sunglasses, bike rides, hanging by the pool, staying up late, catching fire flies, hanging out with friends, and then sleeping until we wake up the next morning.

Nothing better, right?

But when you’re parenting kiddos with special needs, who thrive in a structured, routine-driven environment, summer can spell disaster. And that disaster looks like a big fat meltdown after meltdown … after meltdown.

I get it. I’m the parent of eight children, three of whom have major special needs that range from sensory processing needs to hyper-activity and extreme anxiety. Three of my children have been diagnosed with alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, which falls under the umbrella of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Now, let me clarify something before we go much further: all of my children have been adopted and several of them were drug and alcohol-exposed at birth. Their special need is a result of the unfortunate choice their birth mothers made to consume drugs and alcohol while they were in utero.

We are grace-giving people. We don’t harbor negative feelings toward their birth parents, but we’ve realized just how critical it is to embrace the reality that our kiddos need a summer break that is very different from the typical family, with typically developing children.

Here’s how we’re navigating summer break with our kiddos who need structure:

1. Create a routine.

During the school year, we live and die by routine — even our weekends are structured around this. But what about summertime? It’s tough because you want to let things go, not have a set bed time, not have a set wake-up time, or midday schedule. But at what cost? I know it feels restrictive to keep your routine in place during the summer, but it’s much worse to live in chaos.

2. Set expectations ahead of time.

Right before summer starts, we explain the expectations for summer break to our kids. We go through chores and incentives for completing said chores. We also share the schedule and structure we are creating for them (and us). We explain why we are doing this and remain crystal clear on how this will help us have the best possible summer break together.

This will look different, and certainly sound different in your home, but the sooner you can do this, the better. It’s not too late, so start now!

3. Be intentional with downtime.

This is as simple as gathering your kids around for a movie, board game, or even going on a family bike ride. Realistically speaking, when you are raising children with special needs, there is really no such thing as downtime. However, “unscheduled” time can be intentionally structured.

4. Build in fun education.

Where we live in Central Indiana, we have several park nature centers where our kids can have fun and also learn. It keeps their minds stimulated and gives them a focused activity. Zoos are great for this. Another avenue for fun education is through your kids’ school. We asked teachers before the school year ended to provide summer reading schedules and incentives. It’s a win for our school as much as it is for us.

5. Publicize the daily schedule.

In conjunction with your routine, you need to create a visible daily schedule. One of our sons is on the autism spectrum and continually asks, “What’s next?” We decided to create and publicize the schedule for him to see and it helps. When his brain is telling him to ask and ask, he’s able to visit our kitchen’s bulletin board and read exactly what we are doing next. While we don’t really mind the repeat questions, the visible schedule reassures him and gives him security.

6. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Our good friend, Dr. Ira Chasnoff from NTI Upstream has a great perspective for helping kiddos like ours navigate through their days.

He says, “Whatever you do one day, repeat, repeat, repeat day after day.” No matter what, repeat, repeat, repeat. The only way to build up consistency with your kiddos and your routine is repeating the same thing every single day.

Our new normal functions differently than families with children without special needs. When I accept what is, I’m able to not only see the beauty right in front of me, I have the chance to create memories with the beautiful children I’m blessed to call mine.

Here’s to summer — and your peace of mind!

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