More Than Just Play – Therapeutic Summer Activities for Autism

summer activities for autism

Summer provides a great opportunity for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to continue developing important skills outside of the school environment. Participating in fun summer activities can help improve social skills, communication, motor skills, following directions, and self-confidence.

Some of the key benefits of summer activities for kids with ASD include:

  • Social Skills Development – Group activities allow kids to practice interacting with peers, taking turns, sharing, and reading social cues. This helps children build friendship skills in a natural environment.

  • Communication Skills – Camps, classes, and play dates give kids a chance to practice conversational skills and nonverbal communication through role-playing, games, arts, music, and more. This can increase comfort with verbal and nonverbal expression.

  • Motor Skills – Many summer activities like sports, dance, swimming, and outdoor play allow kids to further develop gross and fine motor skills through movement and coordination. Physical activities can also help improve body awareness.

  • Following Directions – Structured programs provide opportunities for children to practice listening, processing verbal instructions, and independently carrying out multi-step directions from others.

  • Having Fun – Most importantly, summer activities should be fun! When kids genuinely enjoy an activity, they are more engaged and motivated to participate and learn. Finding activities matched to a child’s unique interests is key.

The warm summer months provide the perfect setting for kids on the autism spectrum to have new experiences, make friends, learn life skills, and simply have fun – all while continuing to grow developmentally.


Popular Summer Activities

Summer provides a great opportunity for children with autism to engage in fun outdoor activities that can aid in their development. Here are some of the most popular summer activities for kids with autism:

1. Swimming

Swimming is a great activity for autistic children as it provides sensory input, social opportunities, and physical exercise. The water’s resistance can have a calming effect while moving in the water promotes body awareness. Swimming lessons with an instructor experienced with autism can teach safety and swimming skills. Parents should provide structure, patience, and plenty of praise and encouragement.

2. Camping

A camping trip allows for outdoor exploration and new experiences. It’s important to choose a familiar, quiet campground and bring along your favorite foods and activities. Keep the daily schedule consistent but allow time for hiking, roasting marshmallows, and exploring nature. Camping promotes independence, self-confidence, and social skills.

3. Arts and Crafts

Crafts like painting, drawing, and sculpting allow autistic kids to express themselves creatively. Arts and crafts teach fine motor skills, problem-solving, focus, and self-expression. Praise the process rather than the end product. Simple crafts with clear instructions work best. Encourage sensory exploration of art materials.

4. Music Therapy

Many autistic children respond well to music. Music therapy uses music engagement to promote communication, relationship skills, and emotional expression. Children may sing, play simple instruments, move to music, or listen to songs. Benefits include increased language, focus, social skills, and self-confidence.

5. Hiking

Nature hikes provide sensory stimulation, exercise, and a change of scenery. Start with short, simple hikes on clear trails. Bring visual schedules to help a child know what to expect. Hiking builds physical skills, independence, self-esteem, and an appreciation for nature. Supervise closely for safety near water or cliffs.

6. Sensory Play

Sensory activities allow autistic children to explore using their senses of touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste. Popular sensory play includes sandboxes, water tables, play dough, bubbles, and finger painting. Provide a variety of sensory materials and supervise for safety. Sensory play builds neural connections and improves sensory processing.



Swimming is a great summer activity for children with autism. The benefits of swimming for autism include:

  • Improved coordination and muscle strength. The resistance of the water helps build strength and the flowing, rhythmic motions of swimming improve coordination.

  • Social skills development. Group swimming lessons provide opportunities for social interaction in a structured environment. Kids can learn to take turns, follow instructions, and engage with others.

  • Calming sensory input. The water provides soothing tactile input. The sound and movement of the water can have a regulating effect on overstimulated kids.

  • Recreation and joy. Swimming is an enjoyable activity that provides recreation on hot summer days. The fun of being in the water can motivate kids.

  • Safety skills. Learning water safety and swimming skills helps keep kids safe around water.

Some key safety considerations for swimming with autism:

  • Close supervision is essential. Provide one-on-one support or swim with the child. Do not rely on lifeguards for supervision.

  • Use flotation devices and remain in shallow water until skills develop. Arm floats, life jackets, and pool noodles can help build confidence.

  • Teach water safety. Kids with autism need clear instructions on rules and dangers around water. Use social stories and visual aids.

  • Prevent elopement. Secure gates, wear identification and keep a close eye on wandering behaviors.

Swimming lessons tailored for autism can help kids learn vital aquatic skills. Lessons often use visual supports, individualized instruction, and repetition to teach skills. Look for small group or private lessons with an instructor experienced with autism. Consistency, patience, and positive reinforcement lead to swimming success.



Camping can be a fun and rewarding summer activity for children with autism. Being out in nature provides a calming sensory experience and offers opportunities for learning life skills. However, camping does require some additional preparation and planning when supporting a child with autism.

Benefits of Camping

  • Getting outdoors in nature provides a soothing natural setting that can help relax the senses. The sights, sounds, and smells of the outdoors can have therapeutic benefits.

  • Camping allows for routine-based activities like setting up camp, building a fire, and roasting marshmallows. Routines can provide comfort and learning opportunities.

  • Away from home, camping encourages independence and responsibility through chores and self-care. Kids can gain confidence in mastering new skills.

  • Cooking over a campfire and other camping tasks promote fine motor skills, coordination, and problem-solving.

  • Camping is social, allowing kids to practice communication skills with family. But it also provides space when overwhelmed.

  • Being active has physical and mental health benefits like reducing stress and improving sleep.

Preparing for Camping

Camping with autism does require some additional planning and preparation:

  • Visit the campground ahead of time so the child can become familiar with the setting. Drive or walk the campsite.

  • Look at pictures of the campground together and make a social storybook explaining what to expect.

  • Pack comfort items like familiar toys or electronics to help ease the transition.

  • Prepare a visual schedule showing the sequence of camping activities using pictures or icons.

  • Bring along preferred foods as new foods or changes in routine can be stressful.

  • Make a checklist for setting up camp and assign tasks based on abilities. But don’t overload with responsibilities.

  • Explain camping rules and safety precautions using social stories. Have kids wear a camp ID.

  • Bring noise-canceling headphones or earplugs in case the sounds of nature become overstimulating.

  • Make sure to pack any medications, supplements, or items used in therapy routines.

Camping Activities

Some fun camping activities to try:

  • Go on nature hikes or scavenger hunts looking for plants, insects, birds, etc. Take pictures of discoveries.

  • Cookout hotdogs and s’mores over the campfire.

  • Tell stories, sing songs, or read books together in the tent at night. Use flashlights.

  • Play games like frisbee, cornhole, or catch. Bring along familiar indoor games too.

  • Do arts and crafts like painting rocks or making leaf rubbings using crayons and paper.

  • Go fishing – taking turns casting and reeling in the line.

  • Build sandcastles or structures using sticks and stones.

  • Take a dip in a lake if swimming is an option. Always supervise water play.

With the right planning and preparation, camping can provide a fun summer adventure outdoors while also building life skills for children on the autism spectrum. Start small for first camping trips, like one overnight stay close to home. Then work up to longer trips as kids gain experience. Embrace the bonding time together.


Arts and Crafts

Arts and crafts can be a great activity for children with autism. Creative projects provide a fun outlet for self-expression and imagination. Plus, arts and crafts can help build fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and focus.

Some benefits of arts and crafts for kids with autism include:

  • Improves creativity and self-expression. Art is a nonverbal way for children to communicate their thoughts and feelings. This can be empowering for kids who struggle with verbal communication.

  • Develops fine motor skills. Cutting, drawing, painting, gluing, and other crafts help strengthen the small muscles in the hands and fingers. This aids in coordination and dexterity.

  • Foster’s sensory exploration. Crafts allow kids to experiment with different textures, sounds, smells, and visuals at their own pace. This provides sensory input in a fun, engaging way.

  • Builds focus and concentration. Following step-by-step instructions for a craft project requires sustained attention and focus. This is great practice for improving concentration skills.

Some fun and easy arts and crafts ideas include:

  • Painting with watercolors, fingerpaint, or puffy paint
  • Making sensory bins with beans, rice, water, sand, etc.
  • Collages with various materials like fabric, buttons, pasta, glitter, etc.
  • Drip paintings using droppers and liquid watercolors
  • Salt paintings – sprinkle salt on wet paint to make cool textures
  • Chalk and bubble painting outside on the driveway or sidewalk
  • Playdough – can mix in glitter, beads, gems, or essential oils for sensory input
  • Melting crayon art – melt old crayons between wax paper with an iron

The key is finding projects that engage your child’s senses and spark their creativity. Let them take the lead and express themselves through art!


Music Therapy

Music therapy can be a beneficial summer activity for children with autism. It provides a creative outlet and method of expression that can help improve communication, social, and cognitive skills.

Some key benefits of music therapy for autism include:

  • Improves verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Singing songs and rhythm activities promote language development. Musical cues can also help nonverbal children communicate wants and needs.

  • Enhances social skills. Group music activities allow for positive social interactions with peers. Music therapists model appropriate social behaviors.

  • Reduces anxiety and improves mood. Soothing music has calming effects that lower stress. Upbeat songs can elevate mood and increase motivation.

  • Develops motor skills. Playing instruments strengthens fine and gross motor skills. Dancing and movement improve coordination and balance.

  • Fosters self-expression. Musical activities provide a means to express feelings in a safe, creative manner. Children may portray emotions through singing, playing instruments, or moving to music.

  • Improves focus and cognition. Musical patterns and sequences of songs help improve memory, attention span, and learning skills.

Fun music therapy activities and games for summer include:

  • Musical imitation games. Take turns imitating rhythms by clapping or using instruments. Mirror melodic patterns by singing or playing tones.

  • Music-based movement. Use scarves, rhythm sticks, or other props to dance and move to songs. Follow the leader’s dancing games.

  • Musical storytelling. Act out a story with music and instruments for sound effects. Create a soundtrack to narrate a social story.

  • Music performance. Put on a music show by singing songs and playing instruments. Make visual aids like tickets and flyers.

  • Music exploration. Provide a variety of musical instruments for free musical play. Discover different sounds instruments can make.

Many different musical instruments can be incorporated:

  • Rhythm instruments: drums, tambourines, maracas, claves, rhythm sticks
  • Melodic instruments: xylophone, metallophone, glockenspiel
  • Accessible instruments: rain stick, ocean drum, adapted electronic instruments
  • Voice: singing, chanting, vocal play

Using familiar, preferred songs can help engage children in music therapy. Nursery rhymes, children’s songs, and theme songs make great choices.



Hiking is a great summer activity for children with autism. It provides many benefits, including promoting physical activity, exploring nature, and sensory stimulation.

Benefits of Hiking

  • Improves physical fitness and endurance through walking and climbing. This supports healthy development.

  • Provides sensory stimulation through sights, sounds, smells, and textures in nature. This can have a calming effect.

  • Develops motor coordination and balance as children navigate uneven terrain.

  • Being outdoors in green spaces reduces stress and improves mood.

  • Allows opportunities for learning about wildlife, plants, trees, and the environment.

  • Promotes social skills through hiking in a group. Taking turns, helping each other, and sharing discoveries.

Preparing for a Hike

Proper preparation helps ensure a successful and safe hike. Some tips include:

  • Choose child-friendly trails without dangerous terrain or obstacles. Check it out ahead of time.

  • Have children wear sturdy shoes or boots to prevent injury.

  • Pack nutritious trail snacks and plenty of water.

  • Bring any medications that may be needed.

  • Dress in layers for changing weather conditions.

  • Use sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses for sun protection.

  • Take along a first aid kit in case of minor injuries.

  • Bring a fully charged phone for emergency communication.

Safety Considerations

It’s important to keep safety in mind when hiking with children with autism:

  • Closely supervise children at all times, and hold hands when needed. Don’t let them run too far ahead.

  • Define clear boundaries to avoid wandering off the trail. Use landmarks as visual guides.

  • Watch for tripping hazards like rocks or roots sticking up on the path.

  • Take breaks often to prevent overexertion. Keep a comfortable pace.

  • Be alert for signs of allergic reactions to plants or insect bites.

  • Respect wildlife and keep your distance. Avoid approaching unfamiliar animals.

With thoughtful preparation and supervision, hiking can be an enriching summer experience for children on the autism spectrum. The combination of physical activity, sensory experience, and nature exploration provides a range of benefits. Start with short and simple hikes, then work up towards more challenging terrain. But most importantly, make it fun!


Sensory Play

Sensory play can be highly beneficial for children with autism. It provides a fun way to help them develop and engage their senses. Some key benefits of sensory play include:

  • Improves focus and concentration
  • Helps develop motor skills
  • Promotes sensory processing and integration
  • Provides calming, therapeutic benefits
  • Allows for self-expression and creativity

Many simple sensory play activities can be done at home with common household items. Here are some ideas:

  • Play dough – Roll, pound, squeeze, and shape colorful play dough. Add scents or textures by mixing in coffee grounds, cinnamon, glitter, etc.

  • Water play – Fill containers and let kids pour, scoop, splash, or stir the water. Add bubbles, food coloring, bath toys, funnels, etc. to enhance.

  • Sandbox – Hide toys in the sand and let kids dig around to find them. Bury hands or feet in the sand to feel the texture.

  • Sensory bins – Fill bins with materials like dry beans, rice, beads, pom poms, and pine cones. Allow kids to dig, sift, and explore.

  • Finger painting – Using pudding, jello, shaving cream, or regular paint allows creative sensory expression.

  • Slime – Making and playing with slime is fun. Add glitter or beads to vary textures.

Having a variety of sensory toys available can also facilitate sensory play. Some examples include:

  • Fidget toys like spinners, cubes, and tangles
  • Weighted blankets, vests, or lap pads
  • Textured balls, toys, or puzzles
  • Noise-making toys like rain sticks, maracas, xylophones

The key is providing a range of sensory experiences through sight, sound, touch, movement, smell, and taste. Sensory play allows kids with autism to engage their senses in a calming, regulating way.


Adapting Activities

There are many ways to adapt summer activities to meet the needs of children with autism. Using visual supports, and social stories, and making adjustments can help make activities more engaging and successful.

Visual Supports

Visual supports like picture schedules, first-then boards, and visual timers can add predictability and clarity when transitioning between activities. They provide a concrete way for kids to know what activity is next. Picture schedules show the sequence of activities, first-then boards outline expectations or steps, and visual timers help understand elapsed time. These tools reduce anxiety.

Social StoriesTM

Social StoriesTM describes social situations through a child’s perspective to promote an understanding of expectations. They can explain activities using positive language to reduce uncertainty. Stories may explain what will happen, who will be involved, behaviors to use, and how the child may feel. Reading these in advance helps kids anticipate events.

Activity Adaptations

There are small adaptations to enable participation. Allowing sensory tools during activities gives comfort. Offering headphones reduces auditory overstimulation. Providing alternate ways to participate prevents isolation. Examples are tracing handprint art instead of drawing or singing along instead of active dance. Breaking tasks into manageable steps with structured routines also optimizes involvement. Summer activities can be tailored to match needs and abilities.


Choosing Activities

When selecting summer activities for a child with autism, it’s important to consider the child’s unique skills, interests, and sensitivities. The goal is to find activities that play to their strengths and allow them to engage meaningfully. At the same time, summer can provide a good opportunity to gently push their comfort zone and try new things.

A few tips for choosing suitable summer activities:

  • Take into account the child’s developmental level, attention span, and any sensitivities they may have to light, sound, touch, etc. Activities should provide an appropriate level of challenge without being too frustrating.

  • Build on existing interests. If a child loves music, look for a music class or music therapy program. Arts and crafts camps can nurture a budding artistic talent.

  • Consider activities that allow social interaction with peers, but have breaks from group settings as needed. Social skills summer camps can provide a supportive environment for making friends.

  • Incorporate movement. Many children with autism benefit from activities that get them active and burn off extra energy, like swimming or hiking.

  • Identify any life skills you’d like to work on and find ways to practice them through summer activities. For example, ordering their food at a camp cafeteria can encourage independence.

  • Alternate more structured activities with free play/downtime. Both are important.

  • Try offering a menu of activity options and allowing your child to choose based on their interests and comfort level day-to-day.

The summer provides a great chance to try new things, build skills, and have fun. Keeping the child’s unique needs and preferences in mind will lead to activities that are engaging, enriching, and enjoyable.

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