Running errands is more easily done when you pile everyone into the car and check everything off the list in one afternoon. But the parent of a child with autism knows this isn’t always possible.
“We know that kids with autism can have difficulty with a change in their routine or environment. Many have reactions to sensory input, lights and sounds and these can vary from one location to another,” explains Brianna Baird, Supervising Board Certified Behavior Analyst with Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Bingham Farms.
“We know that due to the pandemic, opportunities for families to participate in the community have been limited,” Baird says. “But there are proactive strategies that you can use to alleviate stress and set your child up for success.”
Here, we share Baird’s top tips for successful community outings for you and your child with autism.
- Capture interest. If your child is just learning, gear your first few community outings to your child’s interests. “A park or playground might be good, or if your child likes electronics, maybe a small-scale arcade will be enjoyable,” Baird says.
- Talk about your outing. Going into new situations can be intimidating, so prepare your child with pictures or drive by in the car. “Talk about who you will see there, what you’ll be doing and whether it will be quiet or loud,” Baird suggests. “And bring reinforcement. Snacks or stickers and tickles and praise can be used to reinforce their awesome behavior.”
- Use first-then statements. Clear expectations can be very helpful, Baird says. “First we are going to Target, then we can watch Frozen.”
- Be flexible. “Rather than going to a ticketed event like the movies, start at a place with no specific time commitment, just in case you need to leave,” she suggests. If you are trying a grocery store trip, take it in stages. “Maybe don’t plan to buy anything on the first trip. Just do a lap of the store to get a feel. Next time, interact with self-checkout. After that, buy one or two items.” Eventually, you may be able to give your child assignments, like selecting cereal and placing it in the cart. “Creating stepping stones for your child, rather than diving in head first, will help them build tolerance to being in new places.”
- Stress safety. When parents can be sure their child won’t run through a parking lot or into the street, outings are more successful. “Be sure to review your expectations with your child,” Baird says. “Talk about differences between strangers and community helpers, too.”
- Rely on your ABA provider. “We love when our families collaborate with us on real-life experiences and we are here to be a support even outside of therapy,” Baird says. From targeting specific skills to helping children learn appropriate behavior in public, your ABA provider should help you meet your family’s goals. ABA therapists are skilled at creating social stories that are broad — or specific for a dentist visit, for example. Gateway therapists can even accompany you into the community. “We are here for you in the moment for support and to work through real-life experiences,” Baird says.
There’s a world of skill-building opportunities for your child in the community, so outings are worth the challenge, Baird says. “View them as an opportunity to learn, rather than a barrier to completing your daily activities. It’s a learning process and won’t happen overnight, but even the bad days can give us information about strategies to try.”
Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy services at 13 locations in Michigan. For more information, visit gatewaypediatrictherapy.com.