Tuesday, June 27, 2006

How to Plan a Community Outing with Your Autistic Child

It can feel like pulling off a successful community outing for a child with an autism spectrum disorder takes the knowledge of an autism expert and the skills of an experienced teacher of such children -- plus the logistical know-how of a presidential candidate's advance team. Here are some tips to make the trip less daunting.

1. Know your kid.
Understand what motivates him. If he's young, does he love music and kids shows like Sesame Street? A touring musical stage show featuring Elmo and the gang could be worth a try. What kinds of activities, food, attractions, people does he prefer? Does he like the beach? Those "moon walk" bubbles? What gets him excited? (What gets him too excited?) What stresses him out? What does he need to feel comfortable? Who should be with him? (A sibling can be a comfort, but if grandma would be embarrassed seeing a loud tantrum in public, maybe she's not a good choice.)

2. Scout out the scene. What do you know about the venue? If it's at a local park, church, library, store, school or mall, it's easy to walk around and imagine what it will be like. If the outing is an event at a place unfamiliar to your child, what can you learn about the event? Is it likely to be crowded? Noisy or not, both in terms of audio and visuals? (Some stimulation can be good, but too much can be bad). If it's an arena or theater performance, is there a seating chart? Can you get reserved seats not at the front, but still close enough to see what's going on? Is there a place to walk around if the main event is proves too much to take? Where's the bathroom? How long is the walk from the exit to your transportation? When does it get crowded, and can you go to a venue at an off-peak time, where there are not so many people, like the first movie of the morning, or the last hour the gym is open?

3. Assess what your child could gain from attending. Maybe it's a chance to learn something new, or experience something with his family. Maybe it's to hear music she enjoys. Maybe it's to see his brother do something special. Whatever it is, there must be a real benefit for this child, that, I would argue, goes beyond sharing in family time. If it's a family event, make sure there's some experience with other family members that takes up part of the event that is just for him. It could be a game, or reading a book with him, or just playing together. If you don't know what is in this event for your child after analyzing the situation, you don't have to go. (If you feel like you do have to go, then bring along activities just for the child.)

4. Prepare the kid. Not everyone likes a surprise, and it can help to give a preview of what's coming up to your child with ASD. You can try writing a story (sometimes called a social story, there are lots of links if you search on Google) telling him what to expect. Social stories are especially useful for going to places like the doctor, dentist, a family dinner or school at the start of a new program.

With other activities, the child's reaction to the preview also can be a tip off to you about the activity's attraction. Example: the child likes Curious George books and loves the movie trailer on the web. This prompts his interest in going to see the movie, in spite of his dislike of crowds. It's a key factor in a successful outing. But when he's shown the movie trailer for Cars, he's clearly not as interested. So he doesn't go to see it. There are better things to do.

5. Celebrate small, partial victories. Even when doing all this advance prep work, it's unlikely that any event will be a purely wonderful experience. It's vital to appreciate the moments that do work, where your child loves a certain part of the experience -- one ride at the carnival, one song at the concert, one segment of the religious class, one treat at the birthday party. That moment where he's fully engaged in experiencing something, rather than shutting himself off from that potential enjoyment, can be thrilling to see.

6. Have an exit strategy. If things don't go well, and there will be times they won't, it's good to have one-on-one coverage -- mom or dad, for example -- to play defense. That way, you can try to persevere through a period when your child is uncomfortable, or stuck on something he sees but can't access (like a "moon walk" at the fair before it's open to kids). Use the tricks you use at home to calm and comfort your child, get him to focus on you and your voice and your words. The idea is to get him to avoid non-compliant behavior that will, in the end, prevent him from having any fun.

If that effort fails, and it sometimes will, hit the eject button and bail. You can try to persevere next time. (I know parents with more than one child who have brought two cars to an event as a contingency plan in case things don't work out. That way, one parent can stay at an event with the typically developing child, so she doesn't miss out.)

7. Don't give up. It's essential to keep trying, even after a failure. If one kind of event doesn't work, learn from what happened. What were the conditions there? Was the mall too crowded, noisy? When does it open, and is it quieter then? Did we give a good preview of what to expect? Did the child expect something else? Did we expect something else? Are the child's preferences changing? It could even have been a bad day. We all have them.

The point is to look for opportunities to have great ones. Try again.

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