Summer has arrived! While fun and exciting for many, this season can bring more stress and anxiety for kids on the Autism Spectrum. The freedom, adventure, and friendships portrayed by the movies are often overshadowed by overwhelming anxiety. Changes in routine lead to unpredictability; warmer temperatures make it difficult to stay comfortable; and extended days mean staying up later and finding ways to keep busy longer.
Fortunately there are plenty of things you can do to turn this seasonal change into a window of opportunity for greater development than you have seen in a long time!
Did you know that summer is actually an ideal time to do Sensory Enrichment Therapy?
Environmental enrichment improves cognition and brain function. In their 2013 study of environmental enrichment as an effective treatment for Autism, Leon and Woo, explain that “enriched sensorimotor experiences reliably enhance dendritic branching, synaptic density, and neurogenesis.” In fact, they also explain that enhanced environmental stimulation ameliorates the effects of a wide range of neurological challenges that are experimentally produced in animals, such as toxin exposure, brain trauma, aging, and also autism (Laviola et al., 2008; Nithianantharajah & Hannan, 2006; Pang & Hannan, 2013).
Vacation destinations and community outings can be enriched environments for your child, with a host of new scents and textures! The smell of the salty ocean, sweet cotton candy at the fair, a burning campfire, or the feel of gritty sand, the squish of mud, or the soft tickle of meadow grass are all perfect opportunities to open a dialog about sensations with your child.
Downtime is also crucial for brain development. Research shows that giving your brain a break is essential to make sense of newly learned skills and information, store memories, form a sense of self, and even develop internal ethics (Jabr, 2013). In his article in Scientific American, Jabr acknowledges that adults and children are continually bombarded with an overload of information, too much to possibly process at one time (2013). Appropriate rest helps with both processing information as well as integrating sensory inputs in more complex ways across a wider range of brain regions than when the brain is consciously attempting to work through a problem (Jabr, 2013). In other words, downtime is equally as important as the therapeutic activity itself. The Girardeau et al. (2009) study shows that in downtime, after a new activity, a nearly identical pattern of electrical impulses is recreated among the same set of neurons within the brain.
The more those neurons communicate with one another, the stronger their connections become; meanwhile neglected and irrelevant neural pathways wither. Many studies indicate that in such moments—known as sharp-wave ripples—the rat is forming a memory.
Of course, new environments and change can cause stress for kids with Autism; therefore, we must also incorporate strategies that will help prepare our kids to take advantage of Summer. We will share some of our favorite strategies in our next article. For now, let’s recap:
There are 2 reasons why Summer is good for the brain:
- It brings a wealth of new sensory enrichment opportunities
- More downtime means more time for the brain to integrate, consolidate and re-wire itself.
One more thing… Embrace flexibility!
Using a natural, soft, and reassuring tone, talk to your child about what is going on around them. Try asking fewer questions to reduce the stress of communication. You may also find it helpful to spend less time focused on therapy and educational schedules and spend more time simply being with and getting to know your child this summer.
Continue to tune into our blog for upcoming topics, including a more in-depth look at preventing summer anxiety and stress for your anxious child, focus on preparing for the new school year, and how to turn daily routines into enriched experiences for your child with sensory processing difficulties!
- Girardeau, G., Benchenane, K., Wiener, S. I., Buzsáki, G., & Zugaro, M. B. (2009). Selective suppression of hippocampal ripples impairs spatial memory. Nature Neuroscience, 12, 1222-1223.
- Jabr, F. (2013). Why your brain needs more downtime. Scientific American. Retrieved from www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/
- Laviola, G., Hannan, A. J., Macri, S., Solinas, M., & Jaber, M. (2008). Effects of enriched environment on animal models of neurodegenerative diseases and psychiatric disorders. Neurobiology of Disorders, 31, 159 – 168.
- Nithianantharajah, J., & Hannan, A. J. (2006). Enriched environments, experience-dependent plasticity and disorders of the nervous system. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 697–709
- Pang, T. Y., & Hannan, A. J. (2013). Enhancement of cognitive function in models of brain disease through environmental enrichment and physical activity. Neuropharmacology, 64, 515–528.
- Woo, C. and Leon, M. (2013), Environmental enrichment as an effective treatment for Austism: A randomized controlled trial. Behavioral Neuroscience, 127 (4), 487-497.