You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter. (Psalms 74:17 NRS)
I told a lie. I didn’t mean to, but it just happened. I suppose I wanted to fit in with the other moms. Peer pressure is a powerful force, even for parents.
I was picking my son up from school toward the end of the year in second grade. He walked home with me each day. The school bus was too frustrating. The carpool line was long and caused anxiety as he waited to see my car. So day after day I sweated in the late afternoon Texas heat with a handful of other moms outside the second grade hallway.
One mom gushed about her upcoming summer. “I can’t wait for school to get out. We’ve got swim team coming up. Then a trip to see grandparents. Then the kids are heading to my sister’s with their cousins so my husband and I can get away. After that we have vacation Bible school and then I’m sending them off to a week of camp for the first time. We are going to try to fit in a trip to Disney if we can, but our summer is so packed it may have to wait until next year.”
Another piped up, “Same here. I think we signed up for every single activity at the YMCA. Family is coming for a visit. It’s just crazy-busy all summer long.”
That’s when I lied. “Us too!” The second part wasn’t a lie, “It will be a relief when summer is over.”
All I could think of was the painfully blank calendar of non-existent summer activities. Play dates? Kind of hard when your child has no friends. Swim team? Ha! The noise, the chaos, that blaring horn and shrill whistle – not for my son on the autism spectrum. Vacation Bible school? I tried that once and, honestly, there were parents in that program who stopped speaking to me because I dared to enroll my son after the lead pastor encouraged me to do so. No way was I trying that again! The team activities at the YMCA? Those were a real challenge and more frustrating than fun to my son. He could have a full-blown meltdown playing BINGO. Siblings extending invitations to give us respite? Nope. We did have a couple of weeks planned to go visit grandparents, but two weeks out of twelve is a drop in the bucket.
This magical and marvelous summer the other moms described was not my world, though I desperately wished that it could be. So I lied and said, “Us too!” and set about erasing that lie by finding things to fill the days.
Here are a few strategies that worked for me:
- Support groups. Other parents are likely to have kids in need of friends too. Ours was not the only family staring down the barrel of a long and boring summer.
- “Special needs friendly” events. These were non-existent back when my son was young, but are becoming more and more popular. Check with local children museums, movie theaters, sports stadiums and performing arts venues. For example, the Houston Ballet Company recently offered their first autism friendly performance, complete with interaction between performers and children afterwards.
- Congregations with special needs ministries. Faith communities are much more aware and inclusive in summer camp and vacation Bible school. Find a program that fits your family and talk to the staff ahead of time so that they are prepared with volunteers who match the needs of your child. If budget is tight, volunteer your own time to help defray cost.
- Summer camp for special needs children. There are more and more opportunities for children with special needs to experience summer camp. Some are child specific and some accommodate the whole family. These often fill early so research registration dates and mark them on your calendar.
- Check the calendar at local disability friendly non-profits. For example, in the Houston area, Family to Family Network and Easter Seals offer or have information about a variety activities and respite care. There is also Mikey’s Guide, a local publication to a broad variety of local disability friendly services and events.
- Keep a routine. For many of our kids, structure is key. Set a routine for meals, errands, play time, family chores. Routine helps remove boredom.
- Focus on therapy and acquiring new skills. Fitting in therapies during the school year can be a real challenge. Take advantage of available time to focus on areas for growth. Consider finding a tutor for challenging subjects to help keep your child from losing hard-won skills in math and reading.
- Enjoy a less hectic pace for a while. While we live in a culture that glorifies “busy,” it is okay to step off the merry-go-round and enjoy a pace that is slower than the world around you.
- Explore the outdoors. Children are inside for hours each day at school. Take advantage of summer as a time to get outside and explore parks, beaches, and walking trails. State and local parks in your area may have summer programs, such as guided trail tours, that suit a child’s interest and focus. If mobility is a challenge consider a tag along trailer for a bike. Check your own yard for bird nests and enjoy watching the new family grow.
- Check out programs at the local library. Libraries are a treasure trove of child friendly activities and resources. The best part? They are free!
- Water is wonderful in the summer heat. If the community pool is overwhelming, go at off times. No pool in your area? Create your own backyard water fun with sprinklers or an inexpensive wading pool.
- Remember self-care. Parenting becomes 24/7 when children are home from school. With high needs children this can be especially tiring to the caregiver. Tag team with your spouse or other adult when you need a break. Schedule a night out as often as you can in order to nurture your most important relationships. Take time to do things you enjoy.
I learned that filling the summer isn’t about keeping up with what everyone else is doing. Rather, it is about finding the pace and activities that best suits my family and flourishing there.
God of all seasons, Let there be renewal of spirit and foundations for friendships that last for all. May the bounty growing in the fields of summer also grow within the hearts and minds of nurturing communities of acceptance. Amen