Busy parents benefit when their child with autism is comfortable participating in grocery shopping, visiting the library and running errands in the community. Even more satisfying is how these experiences benefit your child with autism, says Jamie McGillivary, BCBA and President and Founder of Healing Haven in Madison Heights.
“All of this is important because it ties to the No.1 goal, which is independence. When kids struggle with everyday life skills, it impacts their dignity,” explains McGillivary. “Individuals with autism have a right to be out in the community just as much as everyone, but it’s human nature for parents who encounter struggles to shy away from bringing their child to run errands.”
Parents may believe that when their child has a meltdown, well-meaning people may think the worst, she says. McGillivary and her team work to help children navigate in the community — and support their parents so they can help their kids in these situations. “And, in doing so, we help families educate the community and increase awareness and acceptance so children with autism can share their light with the world.”
Start building everyday success
How do you help your child become comfortable with accompanying you on errands and outings in the community? “Practice, practice, practice,” says McGillivary, adding that you potentially will be working to help your child overcome sensory challenges and anxieties about trying something new.
If your goal is to have your child be comfortable with grocery store trips, use that environment to help them prepare and progress gradually, she suggests. You might start by driving by the store and talking about what happens in the store. On your next visit, step inside the store so your child can take in the sights and sounds. Then, set a goal of walking down one aisle. Eventually you’ll select one item to buy, finding much-needed success in the quick trip to the store category.
Just be prepared to move at your child’s pace. “Sometimes, this can take a long time before it clicks,” McGillivary says. “But that time invested will build skills that they will use for the rest of their life, so it’s worth the investment.”
You know your child best and can predict what situations might trigger challenging behavior. Gradual exposure can help, says McGillivary.
“You are working to widen their world, essentially. Sometimes kids will go into a situation and say, ‘This is way too much!’ But when they get in, they find it is not as bad as they thought it would be. Every experience can potentially open the door for more social opportunities,” McGillivary says.
Your plan should include teaching communication skills using whatever mode your child uses. When your child communicates they have reached their limit, maybe by saying ‘all done’ or ‘please stop,’ honor that,” says McGillivary. “And find gratitude in what you have accomplished, even if it’s just getting to the door. You have avoided a meltdown. When you proceed on your child’s terms, it reduces their anxiety.”
For your best success, appeal to what motivates your child when choosing your outing or errand goals. If your child loves being outside, a visit to the park would likely be more amenable than the grocery store. And, a visit to the grocery store is more enticing when you’re purchasing your child’s favorite cookies.
“Listening to your child’s preferences is an important key to your success. Start by taking your child to a place where they have a connection and see how they tolerate it in small increments. Then widen your circle and move on to something that’s less preferred but necessary,” says McGillivary.
How your ABA therapy team can help
Tap into the expertise of your child’s BCBA. They will provide tips and support and be your biggest advocate along the way.
While there’s no ideal developmental age to begin working with your child to better tolerate trips out in the community, your BCBA can help identify developmentally appropriate expectations to help increase your success in tackling everyday outings with your child with autism.
“Your BCBA can help you design a plan that is specific to your family’s needs,” McGillivary says. “It’s important to work with someone to identify proactive and reactive strategies specific to your child’s needs. This can help decrease the amount of time it takes for your child to learn these skills.”
When you help your child achieve everyday success in the community, you’re building more than functional skills — you’re boosting their confidence.
“This builds them up,” McGillivary says. “You are helping your child understand how capable they are.”
Learn more about ABA therapy for your child or teen at Healing Haven. Visit thehealinghaven.net.