Summer Fun for Families With Autistic Children

Many autistic children and their families dread summer. Changes in routine, too much free time, and anxiety can all get in the way of family fun. While every child with autism is different, activities can be modified to suit the needs of autistic children with sensory challenges or cravings, issues with changes in routine, and behavioral challenges. Even better, they can be enjoyed with siblings!


Go Swimming

Photo of a family jumping off a dock into a lake
Echo / Culture / Getty Images

First on this list—and almost ANY list of summer fun—is swimming. Many children and teens on the spectrum gravitate to water, as do their siblings and parents or guardians. There are many options for swimming with an autistic child; here are just a few. Of course, it goes without saying that water can be dangerous, so don't pick up a book and zone out while an autistic child, or any child, is splashing around.

  • Find a lake or quiet beach and paddle around near the shore. Allow the child with autism to explore the water at their own pace. Some children will splash, while others will sit quietly. As a little one, our son enjoyed sitting on the sandy bottom of a lake and observing the tiny fish and birds. A happy experience for him.
  • Go to a pool, ideally at a YMCA. Ys often offer specific times for people with disabilities and their families to swim, and many even have swim instructors trained to work with autistic children. Even if they don't, most kids with and without autism can have a great time just playing with the wet stuff!
  • Get into the surf. Many children with autism crave physical sensations, and nothing beats crashing surf for an intensely physical experience. Our son absolutely loves the waves at the New Jersey and Delaware shore! Again, it's absolutely critical that families stay vigilant; we even held both our kids' hands in the surf until they were big and strong enough to stay on their feet as a big wave came along.

Take a Hike

Everyone can walk, and kids with autism are often great walking or hiking companions. Some have surprising stamina; others are extraordinarily observant of the details around them. If families are worried about a child getting tired, hot, or just antsy, start with a short local stroll. Most nature centers also have very short circle routes available near the visitors' center—perfect for an easy, fun, family activity.


Join a Children's Museum or Zoo

Families might not think about a child with autism in connection with a museum or zoo, but after joining—often at a surprisingly low cost—families can come and go as they please, for as long or short a time as they like. This gives families the opportunity to bring a child with autism (and other kids) for short, "get to know the place" visits at hours when other families are less likely to visit (Sunday mornings are ideal). Many children's museums offer cool, indoor playgrounds where kids can climb and run in an enclosed area, while most zoos have interactive areas such as petting zoos. By the time families have visited two or three times, the child with autism will know the routine, and feel at home in a rich, educational community setting.


Buy a Season Pass to an Amusement Park

Many amusement parks offer discounted season passes. This means families can bring a child with autism (and their siblings) as often as they like, all for the same cost. Before families go, figure out what the plan for the day is, and preview the experience with the child. Carefully select rides and experiences they'll like, and keep each visit short. Families can build a routine around the park visit, so the child knows just what will happen, and when to expect changes in the routine. HINT: go when others don't—early in the morning, on weekdays and Sundays, to lower the risk of crowds, disappointments, and meltdowns.


Get Crafty

Some children with autism are extraordinary visual artists; many aren't. In school, so much time is spent on therapies, academics, and social skills that kids on the spectrum often miss out on art class. So summer is a great time to open that door. Families can sign their child up for a class with an instructor, but it can be tough to find that perfect class. Often, a better choice is to create an art corner at home, complete with a range of media and a nice big tarp on the floor. Be aware that many children on the spectrum have sensory issues that make sticky, gooey substances difficult to manage; others may put non-food items in their mouths. So start with simple, non-toxic supplies like crayons, paper, and safety scissors and progress from there. And don't worry if a child isn't an artist: few of us are.


Explore Music

Many children with autism have musical talents, but because they're so busy with other priorities at school, they may not have a chance to join the choir or pick up a musical instrument. Summer is a great time to take kids to outdoor concerts where they can move around, dance, or make noise without creating a ruckus. Families might also want to introduce children with and without autism to different kinds of music and music-making, by taking them to musical events, playing "dance party" music at home, or even offering them a chance to try out a musical instrument or singing.


Get Physical

Fitness is important to everyone, but kids with autism often lose out when it comes to gym time, organized sports, or high energy play dates. Summer is a good time to get physical as a family. Depending upon a child's abilities and sensitivities, families might want to try activities such as a backyard water slide or sprinkler, bike or trike riding, rock climbing (I was absolutely amazed by my son's fearlessness and joy at being able to climb a wall in a harness!), or jumping on a low, safe trampoline. Local playgrounds are also a terrific resource—not only because they're fun, physical, and often enclosed for safety, but also because they offer such great opportunities to teach social skills.


Ride a Train

Many people with autism are attracted to trains; no one really knows why! Riding a real train can be a terrific summer activity, and there are plenty of opportunities to do just that in many vacation spots. There are trains that go up mountains; scenic train rides; train museums that offer rides. There are subway trains, light rail trains, and trains that take families to exciting destinations. There are also miniature trains in amusement parks which can be great fun for everyone.


Visit Disneyworld

OK, granted, this is not a cheap or easy activity, and Disney is darned hot in summer. But if families are looking for a destination where the whole family—including an autistic child—can feel relaxed and supported, nothing can beat Disney. They offer disability passes so autistic children need not wait in long lines. They literally cater to every dietary whim. They provide high and low-energy rides, mellow and intense swimming experiences, and plenty of non-amusement-park options ranging from hikes to boating to fishing to horseback riding. Take it slow and easy, plan and preview every day's activities, and build in lots of breaks and snacks. And do take advantage of Disney services where and whenever needed: that's why they're there.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.