If your child with autism is feeling restless and distracted, now is a great time to plan some outdoor activities. It could be that your child is craving some fresh air and nature — and spending time outside is just the cure for shaking off that cooped-up feeling, says Nicholette Christodoulou, M.A., BCBA, LBA, Clinical Director at Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Bingham Farms.
“Most kids love any opportunity to go outside. Sometimes kids with autism can feel frustrated in a confined environment and that change of pace can help them reset,” Christodoulou says, adding that she’s always open to trying new things that could be beneficial for her clients’ therapy.
“If we’re teaching kids to label things in their environment, why not go outside and seek novel examples, rather than the same things we see everyday indoors, or in videos and pictures?” There are always clouds to count and colors to see. “It helps to stop and enjoy what is in front of you. That means a lot for some of our kids,” she says.
For parents who want to encourage outdoor activities for their child with autism, Christodoulou offers some helpful tips for successful experiences.
Check in for skills. “Make sure that your child has the motor skills or motivation for opportunities that may present themselves,” she suggests. For example, a child who likes to be on a swing but hasn’t yet learned to pump their legs might have a less enjoyable time. Set your child up for success by selecting activities that you know they can do or by being ready to provide support.
Seek out favored activities. “Kids on the autism spectrum may require support or accommodations to participate in the types of activities that kids typically do in summer camps, so try to alter the setting for their skill set and interests,” Christodoulou says.
Anything that involves lots of movement can be a great choice, like swimming, playing on a play structure or using a trampoline.
Prepare your child. If you’re planning a picnic or a trip to the beach and suspect sand, water and grass will be challenging, try some desensitizing activities inside first. “Allow your child to explore water and sand and grass on their own terms,” Christodoulou suggests. “If they are more comfortable inside, bring these elements inside and provide slow exposure over time.”
If your child likes the idea of being outside in meadows, for instance, but might have sensitivity to novel sensations, start by exploring from the safety of the car. “This can desensitize and spark interest in seeing a novel environment from the inside of the car,” she says.
Prepare some more. If your child appreciates knowing what to expect, use a visual schedule with pictures or words to describe the day. “If you review this with your child well in advance, it can help to create a more successful experience,” Christodoulou says. Consider offering some formal teaching about what your child can do outside. “You can use a social story to provide a picture of what being outside looks like. In the story, include your child and friends who can also do these things.”
Set a playdate at a park and invite a peer with similar interests. Exploring new activities with friends can provide a level of comfort while also presenting opportunities for children to learn from others in the most natural way.
Share with your child’s therapist. If you have unexpected success during a family camping trip or some weekend gardening, communicate this with your child’s ABA therapist to open new pathways and learning opportunities.
“An open line of communication can help incorporate more of what a child enjoys at home and in the therapeutic setting,” says Christodoulou. “This can be a route to new activities that kids didn’t even know they loved.”
Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy services at 11 locations in Michigan. For more information, visit gatewaypediatrictherapy.com.