Changing gears at the end of the school year can be hard for any family, but it's especially challenging when a child has been diagnosed with autism.

Changing gears at the end of the school year can be hard for any family, but it's especially challenging when a child has been diagnosed with autism.

School provides autistic kids with established routines and regularly scheduled activities that help them succeed. When school ends, parents and caregivers often struggle to establish new routines for their autistic children. To help make the transition more smoothly, two free, informational workshops have been scheduled for Tuesday, June 11, and Tuesday, July 16, by Providence Swindells Resource Center of Southern Oregon.

"The goal is to give parents with children in the autism spectrum more tools to make them more successful in the community," says Kathy Keesee, resource specialist at the Swindells Center in Medford.

"Autism" is the general term used to describe a wide range of developmental disorders that are first diagnosed in early childhood. At the most basic level, autistic children have problems with language, social interaction and behavior.

Specialists who treat autism often use the term "autism spectrum disorders" because the range of symptoms and behaviors is so broad.

"The old saying goes, 'if you've seen one autistic child, you've seen one autistic child,' " says Maria See of Medford, who has two sons with autism spectrum disorders. "They're all so different."

Unstructured activities that make summer a fun time for most kids (think of a picnic in the park) can be challenging for autistic kids precisely because they are so loosely organized. Parents can help autistic kids prepare for an unstructured event by carefully explaining everything that's planned, says Mari Martinen, who will speak at the June 11 program.

Martinen works as a regional autism consultant for the Southern Oregon Education Service District. She says kids with autism need a "level of predictability" for their activities. To prepare for an outing, she suggests parents write or tell their autistic children a story with basic details about everything that will happen, from packing a lunch to getting in the car, driving to the park, eating lunch and playing on the play structures.

"Open-ended activities can be really challenging to kids with autism spectrum disorders," Martinen says.

It's important for autistic kids to experience activities that enrich their lives, says Blanche McKenna, who raised a son with autism spectrum disorders and works as an autism consultant for the education service district. At the end of the school year, she would put together a book of activities her son might want to do during the summer, and he took the book to school. Other kids who were interested in the same activities put their phone number in the book, giving him a supply of familiar faces with whom to enjoy summer activities.

McKenna also enrolled her son in day camp, an option that See, the Medford parent with autistic sons, has used, too. Parents need to talk with camp managers about their child's functional abilities before enrolling to make sure the arrangement will work for everyone.

The July 16 program will focus on managing difficult behaviors that some autistic kids display. Martinen says parents learn with experience that certain activities, places or people can create anxiety or stress for their autistic child. A key to managing behavior is to avoid situations that push the child into a meltdown, because at that point, the child can no longer take in any information because he or she is in an escalated state.

She talks of a "crisis curve," in which subtle behavior changes precede a meltdown. Some children may rock in place, or pace or fiddle with things as their anxiety level increases. Others may talk faster and louder, or laugh a lot. Recognizing the signals that a meltdown is coming can help parents take steps that may help to avoid it.

There is no known single cause for autism, according to the Autism Society, a nonprofit organization that provides information about the condition, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure and function. Specialists agree that autism is not a new phenomenon, but it was not generally diagnosed until recently. Many people remember someone — a friend or family member — who seemed socially awkward or had a different learning style. They may well have had autism spectrum disorders.

Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Email