Friday, June 10, 2016

Those No Good Down Low Stimmy Summertime Blues

Every year, after the initial excitement and novelty of mornings with cartoons and pajamas wears off, usually just after the 4th of July, I often get the question:  

“Help! What can we do to fill up our summer days?”

Good question. So many of our kids enjoy highly structured lives. School, therapies, doctor appointments, and activities typically fill our days. Often we feel we have to fill the empty spaces during summer months to keep our kids from stimming the day away and getting very bored or behavioral.
However, we can only go to the zoo or Children’s Museum so many times before we want to poke our own eyes out, so what to do?

These days, spontaneous individual play is a challenge for many kids, but it can be doubly challenging for us, especially when nostalgically thinking about the “typical” summers of our own childhoods. Those long, unscheduled hours of grimy, sepia-tinged adventures we  remember, glorified in movies like “The Sandlot” with sleep overs and camp outs. 
Maybe we even get a little down thinking that summer is will never be like that for our kiddos and that we just have to white-knuckle it until September.

--Oohhh my mama friends, I beg to differ! 
Summer can indeed be fun, spontaneous, and unstructured, just with our own stimmy flavor! 

Here are some thoughts to chew on before you Netflix "Stand By Me" again.  

Summer is full of opportunities we don’t have time for in the school year.

Most seasoned Autism Mamas will tell you they have had their kid’s summer fully planned and color coded on the calendar since April 1st. 
 -- You see, it’s for our own sanity after several cranky, sad summers of hot, sweaty, crying afternoons at the zoo.
Many families cope with the change by increasing therapy hours, scheduling camps and getting more involved with activities, and this is great.  
But don’t forget, summer can also be a great time for much needed rest, down time and open-ended opportunities.

Next post I will give you some activity ideas, but for now, remember these things and be nice to yourself:

Unstructured play time is necessary for growth, too.
It’s difficult for many kids to play by themselves with no guidelines, friends or rules. It can be agonizing to teach this to a child on the spectrum who has difficulty playing in general.

You can try some open-ended Floortime-type play. What’s your cutie stimming on? What’s his/her passion? Can you go join in? Maybe there’s more play happening than it looks like at first and just maybe over time you can expand it. A fascination with spinning things can be encouraged by spinning wheels on toy trucks together, eventually modeled to push the trucks, and some day perhaps you’ll see your child playing with cars independently.

Or maybe, you just build your relationship by just joining your kid in their own beautiful world. My philosophy is that the relationship comes first, then functional behavior, so get on the floor for a while, join them, and before you know it an hour will have passed. They will love you for it.

  Is stimming all that bad?
Give your child a little extra time to just “stim”. We certainly did when we were kids: We were looking at clouds, counting blades of grass, riding fast down that big hill and feeling the sun and wind on our faces. Yes, mamas, it was more sophisticated stimming than flapping hands at the CD player, but it was still stimming in a way. See if you can re-frame a stim your child likes to do as a play activity.
Oh Sand, how I love that you are so wonderfully stimmy. 
Do they like to swing? Let them swing without stopping to see how long they’ll do it (and check out if they are super organized afterwards!). Sifting dirt through the fingers and watching it float on the wind? That’s someone’s version of a mud pie. Can you add water to keep it novel? Can you join in without bringing your own judgments? Yes you can. Find out the secret that makes it awesome and it will open doors for you both.

Screen time doesn’t have to be all bad. We all need to veg some times. If you feel like it’s too much, have the kiddo take a break during a commercial to have a tug-of-war, or stand on a bosu-ball or trampoline during TV time. Lying stomach down on the floor to watch TV or play a game works on getting input to the body and pressing up through the elbows and shoulders, like the cobra pose in yoga. That way you have less guilt but still can get dinner cooked!

Bottom line; our kids work hard at school. Everyone needs a break. If you can handle the stimming or modify it so both of you can be satisfied and it feels somewhat like functional play (hey, dirt is great tactile input and crumbling it helps develop arches of the hand) go with it. 

 Use the extra time to do things you can’t get to during the school year.
No school means skip the shower and get dirty outside first, then come back in and practice bathing and dressing skills mid-day. 
As a bonus you’ve already prepped with outdoor sensory play to support fine motor and focus for these challenging tasks.

My mama friends, this is the time to learn about shoes and socks; When there is no bus driver honking at you! Take a breath, sit down on the floor, and give your child the space to practice and problem solve without the pressure of time. Put on some music, take a deep breath, and give them time to figure it out! 

You can’t go wrong with sensory play.
Give your child a chance to find something they just love to experience but that also is a bit of a challenge and run with it. 
During the summer months we can actually take time to do the things we love to do for hours, rather than the 15 minute snatches of pleasure allowed during "breaks" allowed at school. It will seem like heaven to be allowed to swing/crumple/cut/spin long enough to finally reach their internal sensory threshold! 

Give the space and time to process;  Prep THEN push!
Don’t be surprised if you get resistance to some or all of the above. Your child may prefer to stim alone, so start in parallel. Entice them with your body language that you are having the most fabulous time with your own sand pile. They might want to join you, they might move to another pile. Persevere, parents!

Remember that open ended activities can be anxiety producing, so this is a great time to practice conquering anxiety and letting them know that you will, indeed, wait them out 
“We will go do that when we finish here, for as long as it takes…Don't worry, I can wait.” is one of my favorite obnoxious parenting things to say. 
Just make sure you try to be patient and calm when implementing so they don’t pick up on your stress level. (I know, easier said than done. Fake it ‘till you make it, peeps. )

Prep them (with a social story etc.) and help them follow the activity all the way through, especially when there’s no pressure to be anywhere next. That’s a perfect time to slow down, breathe, let them process their anxiety and hesitation, and then WIN the battle against it!

In the end, if that one activity is all that you get done that day but you conquer it, then THAT is the best therapy session you could ever achieve. --Not in a clinic, not at a table, but living  the life you and your kiddo are meant to live together.

Stim on, families, stim on.

Next post, I’ll have more concrete activity ideas for your days at home or out and about!

 --Joanna


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