Helping Children With Autism Thrive In Summer When The Routine Changes



During the warm months, kids can lose some of the academic momentum they gained over the school year. This “summer slide” is a risk for all children, especially those with autism.

“There are 10 weeks of no school. Ten weeks is a very long time,” says Sharon Cable, of Canton. Her son, Alex, now 23, liked the structure of the school day and became very anxious when the routine changed in June. So, he participated in the Summer Social Skills Immersion program at the FOCUS Center for Autism in Canton. Experts say vacation is actually a great time for kids with autism to learn in a fun, different way.

“Summer is key,” says Donna Swanson, executive director and co-founder of the FOCUS Center for Autism, open since 2000. “It’s when — I think — we do our absolute best teaching. It’s different than being in school. [The kids are] more open, they’re more relaxed.”

The summer program, for kids ages 6 through 18, runs three times a week from June 27 to Aug. 17, in cooperation with The Wilderness School in East Hartland. The children take hikes, complete crafts and work with animals. They also embark on field trips to experience new people and places. “They learn how to transition, how to be out in the community which is really important. They want to belong,” says Swanson.

The FOCUS Center for Autism has grown and now includes a school. The Fresh Start School is a new, state approved program for children with autism spectrum disorder between the ages of 11 and 18. “We’re really a clinical program. We address the psychiatric, emotional needs that are getting in the way — that are the barriers that keep kids from being in a regular school system,” explains Swanson.

The school uses milieu therapy, which utilizes everyday events and interpersonal interactions for practical learning. “We teach kids how to manage their anxiety, how to navigate, how to advocate for themselves. Instead of using behavior, they use their words,” she says. Fifteen students are currently enrolled in the school. A graduation ceremony will be held Wednesday.


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