When my son was diagnosed with autism in 2000, it was still a relatively rare condition. To put it in perspective, in his early years and school, I remember a special education teacher telling me that she had an autistic student once before and understood what accommodations my son would need. In recent years, this has changed drastically, but there are still definite gaps in understanding how to acclimate a child on the spectrum to different experiences.
When my son was younger, I honestly feared taking him places because he was so easily overwhelmed. But, my fear was tempered by the desire for my son to have as many experiences as possible to become a well-rounded person who could appreciate the world around him. Looking back, I wish I would have forced more life experiences on him at younger ages. I have also learned many lessons along the way, that I will be sharing in my new blog series about traveling and getting out and about with children on the spectrum.
First let’s start with 3 basic “rules” for going out and about with a child on the spectrum. These rules apply to everything from visiting Disney World to just walking around your local forest preserve. The rules in a nutshell are know your child’s limits, plan wisely and utilize accommodations when necessary.
Rule #1 Know Your Child’s Limits.
This one can be tricky at first, because limits change over time and sometimes new behaviors and fears pop up out of nowhere. It might seem harsh to phrase it as limits, but let’s face it, every person on this planet has limits of what they can handle in any given situation. Personally, I can only stand about 10 minutes of my 13-year-old daughter whining before I am at my limit. Special needs kids are the same way, there are some things and experiences that they will only be able to take so much of. For my son, it’s about 30 seconds of his sister’s whining before he’s suggesting we send her to boot camp or military school. When we are out and about, we have discovered the following things push his limits, and we developed ways to cope with them.
· Fireworks: He hates the sound of the explosions, so we offer him the choice of earplugs, watching from a covered area or not attending at all. At Disney World, we let him wait in a gift shop (I watch from the doorway) or we split up and I take him to some rides while his sister and stepdad watch the fireworks. My son is older, so the gift shop idea works great. He is able to distract himself by browsing, the sound is muted and I still get a somewhat limited view of the fireworks while still keeping an eye on him.
· Crying Babies or Kids: This is a tough one for him. Even after 13 years of listening to his sister cry and whine, the sound of other kids crying or whining really agitates him. We have a couple steps we follow for this one. First, we try talking him through it. A crying baby isn’t a baby being hurt, it’s a baby that’s hungry. About 90% of the time, talking him through the situation works. The other 10% of the time, we offer him an escape route. For example, we were at Cracker Barrel last month and there was a kid screaming its head off while the parents were engrossed in conversation. The crying persisted, so we offered my son the opportunity to walk around in the gift shop for a few minutes or to sit outside by the window. When the crying stopped, we waved him back in from the gift shop. He got the distraction he needed, and eventually the kid was carted off to the zoo. Ok, we don’t know where the parents took the kid but we joked with my son that he was headed to the zoo. One of our best coping strategies is to try to joke about and bring humor into stressful situations. We have found that once my son starts laughing, his agitation begins to dissipate.
· 4D Movies or Anything That Sprays Water: I don’t blame my son on this one, I hate the stupid 4D movies that think it’s clever to spray you with water. I’m also not a huge fan of riding anything that gets me wet. My daughter, however, loves this stuff. I just don’t understand it. In my son’s case, we found a way to let him enjoy these activities without being miserable. The answer was to pack a poncho for him. We can now ride Splash Mountain or see the Lego 4D show as a family without him being agitated for hours afterwards. It might look a little funny, but if it opens the door for new experiences it is totally worth it.
Your child might have completely different aversions, but this should give you an idea of the types of things that can really affect a child on the spectrum and how problem solving can help lessen the issues and allow your child to enjoy new activities.
Check my blog on Monday for the next article in this series, which covers timing your outing wisely.