Adventures with kids can be hard work. Between being away from the comforts of home, the inevitable nappy explosions at the worst moment and navigating with a pram, sometimes it’s a wonder families ever explore. But we do, and we do so whole-heartedly, because these shared experiences are such a great gift to our children.
Today I’m welcoming all-round Supermum and Wonder Woman from There are Giants in the Sky, Becky, to give her best tips on making adventures autism friendly. No matter what your families barriers, fears or trepidations, I hope you will get out there and show them this beautiful planet. Enjoy!
Before I start let me state I am no expert on the subject, just the parent of an autistic child who has tried and failed many times to get out and about successfully with my son! But I do know what it feels like to dread leaving the house, and how there are times when you’re sure it would be simpler to just stay home (who cares if this is the third party invite you’ve cancelled last minute?). So, any advice to combat this kind of isolation can only be a good thing, right?
Well, here are my 5 top tips for getting your foot out the front door…
1. Be prepared
For me, a large proportion of what I do to support A is considered and implemented before we leave the house. Is it a lot of think about? Yes. Can it be a bit of a faff? Honestly, yes. But it’s worth it if it helps him get out in the big wide world.
Where are you going, what are the potential challenges and what can you do ahead of time to overcome them? Our week is loosely mapped out for A to see and he also has a more detailed daily schedule which breaks the day down further. He doesn’t always need to refer to it during the day, but the routine of going through it in the morning definitely helps manage his expectations. Especially when he can see what he really wants to do (i.e. watch Power Rangers) is on there.
Once your charge is suitably clued in on the plans, you can think more about what else you can do minimise meltdowns. This will depend greatly on your child and what the outing involves, but generally the bigger the trip the further in advance I’ll want to think about it, and things to consider might be environment, social expectations and calming strategies or comforts.
I can recommend chucking a pair of ear defenders or noise cancelling ear phones in the bag and I’ve also found a pair of sunglasses can help too. A loves TV and films so in my experience a tablet is a godsend on longer trips, especially on train or plane rides. On our recent trip to Ireland A basically watched Trolls and Moana on repeat. Yay! It kept him occupied whilst travelling and relaxed him in a new environment. I always let A take one toy out with him too. He gets to choose, which puts him in control, and having something familiar with him is reassuring.
Food and drink can also be a massive comfort for A if he is feeling anxious. He will battle his way through a disco if he knows there is going to be party food! So, arm yourself with snacks and drinks and make sure you know when the next meal is coming!
If we must hit the shops – and I mean MUST (hallelujah for internet shopping) – A will always want to know how many shops and how many items we need. We haven’t mastered reading yet, so we normally just count out items on our fingers and check them off as we go. But a ‘picture list’ is great (if you’re feeling super organised) or if you have an older child, a written list they can cross off themselves could work well. Be warned though, if you have said it’s 2 shops or 5 items and go off course, you may find yourself having to abort the shopping mission immediately to avoid a meltdown! Yup, I’ve been there. Think ahead, have a plan and stick to it!
If you’re braving a kid’s party, it might be worth having a chat with the organisers beforehand to see if there is anything they can do in advance to help your child feel more comfortable. Especially if they are feeling a little ‘off’. Up until now I’ve always been a little unsure of how to broach the subject with parents I don’t know, and so have admittedly turned down party invites to avoid potential issues. But on reflection I know I would be more than happy to help if the situation was reversed, and certainly wouldn’t want any child to be excluded. And hey, you don’t ask, you don’t get, right? Chatting a little more openly may seem scary, but can only help spread awareness in the long run.
2. Visual aids
I LOVE a visual aid and our house is full of them! I’ve mentioned A’s weekly and daily schedules but there are lots of other ways to make visual aids work for you. I carry a notebook in my bag as sometimes a quick now and next sketch is the best way to break down a situation or focus an anxious mind. For example, now shops, next home. Don’t worry about your art skills – stickmen are perfect!
If you’re going somewhere new, sharing photos or videos of the what to expect works really well and good old Google is great for this. Simple things like showing pictures of planes, trains, stations, airports, hotels etc. can help open up communication about the trip, reduce anxiety and manage expectations.
As I said before, we went to Ireland recently. We were attending a friend’s wedding and I was worried about how A would cope with it all. I reached out to the bride and she sent back some fab images of the venue, timings for the day and the kids menu choices. I put all this together with pictures of the people we would be with, things we might do, the kind of plane we would be on and our accommodation, and went through it with A every day for about a week prior to us going. It made a big difference and ensured we both felt prepared beforehand.
Social stories can be used across the spectrum for all ages and abilities to share information and build and clarify the context of a situation. A’s school are great at helping to shape social stories for us, but there is also lots of information online. Check out carolgreysocialstories.com for more information.
3. Take your time and go with it
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is to not rush A. He does everything in his own time, on his own terms and forcing the issue will only make things worse. I will often use phrases like ‘when you’ve finished that’ or ‘when you’re ready’ in order to soften what I’m asking. I’ve also learnt to let him get on with whatever lengthy process he has concocted for doing what’s asked. For a time, in order to put his shoes and coat on, he had to go all the way upstairs and initiate a launch sequence which saw him sliding back down head first, jumping over our hall bench and lying on the floor (Thunderbirds). Attempts to stop this happening were futile and made us even later, so I learnt to go with it. And breathe. Always breathe!
It’s also important to give yourself plenty of time whilst out. During a recent visit to London I completely underestimated how much time A would need to acclimatise to the noise and energy. I was attempting to march him through the streets so as not to be late for our lunch date whereas he stopped listening to a thing I said, probably in an attempt to block out some of the sensory overload. He alternately stood stock still or darted all over the place, trying to take control of the journey. If you add in R’s leaky nappy and the fact we had to wait an age for our table to be ready, it was all a bit of a disaster!
4. Do your research
I don’t know if it’s just because I’m more aware of it now, but it feels like more and more places are getting clued up and catering to an autism friendly audience. Have a look around at local charities, groups or organisations that might know what’s going on where you are. We’re off to see an autism friendly showing of The Lion King in June and I know of cinema screenings, soft play, climbing and trampolining sessions, to name a few, all geared up for autistic families.
When it goes well let your little one know! Be specific and to the point so they know exactly what was great – ‘you sat so nicely on the train today, what a superstar’. And give yourself a pat on the back too. And possibly a large gin!
6. Ok I know I said 5, but this one’s important – don’t worry when it all goes wrong!
Sometimes easier said than done, but try and let it go. Know when its time to cut your losses, ditch the plan and head home. Kiss and make up when the time is right. Perhaps review what went wrong but don’t over analyse or obsess. If my family are reading this – yes, I’m aware I need to take my own advice! Most importantly, don’t let it stop you getting out there and experiencing the world with your little one. Have fun!
For more information I really recommend The National Autistic Society’s website which is full of useful information on autism, including strategies and approaches to supporting children and young people on the spectrum.
Thank you Becky! For more fantastic bloggers who look at parenting children on the autistic spectrum, check out the links below: