Thriving on the Go: How to Make Outings with Your Autistic Child a Success
Going on outings with children is hard. Now I’m not talking about the everyday outings to the park or the store. I’m talking about big outings, like the beach or the zoo. You have to pack clothes and food and toys and drinks, but not the red drink (anything but the red drink), and basically pack up your whole house to be gone for half a day.
Now we take all of those challenges and add a child who has a brain that processes the world differently, and all expectations fly out the window! How can you plan for how the wind feels on their skin? How can you predict if a big dog barks at them? The truth is, you can’t.
There are so many factors that impact our children on the spectrum that are completely out of our control. As a parent of a child with autism and a speech-language pathologist who specializes in autism, I can share some guidance on how to approach outings with your child.
Take care of yourself: Make sure your own needs are met before embarking on an outing. Look at your sleep, hunger, hydration, and make sure you are feeling comfortable in the outing before you leave. If you need support, ask for it. If you don’t feel comfortable, don’t go. Our energy and outlook impacts our experience and our reactions to our children. Set yourself up for success and listen to your own needs.
Manage expectations: Children on the spectrum tend to fixate and have very specialized interests. This means that what we think are things that are cool and fun, may not be the things that captivate them. We have to manage our expectations of what we think fun looks like, and not force anything on our children. Accepting this and allowing your child to enjoy the experience as they choose will not only create joy in your child, but creates a more peaceful experience as a parent.
Prepare your child: If a child understands the plan and what they are about to do, it doesn’t feel as shocking to the brain when it enters a new situation. Prep them on how their sensory needs may be affected. Sometimes all it takes is verbally talking through the plan. “We are going to the aquarium! There will be lots of fish and sharks and we may even see an octopus! It might get too noisy, so we are going to pack your headphones.” Sometimes, our child needs visuals as well. We can pull up pictures of where we are going to show what it looks like and what they will see as we talk them through the plan. Even if you don’t think your child will understand the plan, it is helpful to prepare ourselves out loud of what we are about to do, and challenges that may occur.
Minimize disruption to your daily routine: Our children thrive on predictable routines. When possible, work with the routine and not against it. If you always eat lunch at 12:30, try to honor that expectation even on an outing. If your child tends to get screen time while they eat (like mine), set your phone up in front of them, even if they are in the most beautiful place in the world. That adherence to routine brings familiarity to the unfamiliar place that they are in and helps regulate them.
Have an exit strategy: Sometimes the plan doesn’t work out. Our child may get triggered by things that are outside of our control. To respond quickly and without panic, it is helpful to already have an exit strategy in our head. If you are at an outing where there is staff, like a museum, ask about accommodations they can provide to avoid a meltdown, but also where you can go quickly and safely if something does happen. Your child’s well being (and your own sanity) is more important than the outing.
Big trips with children can be a daunting task, especially when you have a child on the autism spectrum. But with a little preparation, you can make these outings successful and enjoyable for everyone. Remember to take care of yourself, manage your expectations, prepare your child, minimize disruptions to routines, and have an exit strategy, so you can feel confident in your ability to take your child on new adventures, explore the world together, and create unforgettable memories. So, don't let fear hold you back. Embrace the challenge and enjoy the journey!
-Megan Fox CCC-SLP
Megan is a Speech and Language Pathologist with a focus on early intervention for infants and toddlers suspected to be on the Autism spectrum. She believes in empowering families and embracing brain differences to create individualized language approaches for each child. Megan lives in Bowie, MD with her family and enjoys dancing, gymnastics, and watching sports in her free time.