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Out of the House and Into the Unknown: Helping Individuals with Autism Cope in a Social World

by: Jennifer Krumins

Life at home with a child with autism is rarely easy. Changes in routine, unexpected visitors, difficulties with food, toileting and dressing can be disruptive to the whole family. Visits to the doctor or the dentist are incredibly challenging. Parents too often forego visiting friends and family because the stress of breaking the routine of a child with autism and bringing that child into unfamiliar territory is just too much to bear. Parents cringe at the thought of public meltdowns and/or self injurious behavior in a place where people are very quick to judge. No, staying home is often just easier.

But, staying home is not always the best for parent or the child. Parents need to have the freedom to get an errand done or to visit a friend without being completely overwhelmed. Our children also need to be given the opportunities to experience new sights and sounds and to build self confidence from “tackling the world.” Every single time that a child steps out of their door (with or without autism) they have an opportunity to learn and to grow. Research has proven that neurons in the brain get “excited” by new experiences and from this we “grow” our brain by building new pathways. Individuals with autism need experiences in the world outside of their home in order to build neural pathways, practice living in a social environment and learn to regulate their own behavior. Children can’t practice social skills while sitting in front of a Disney movie. We can’t learn how to manage our senses or our fears if we are safely kept away from things that may bother or scare us. But we also can’t “throw” the child into the midst of social situations and hope they can cope. We need to give them the tools that they need to be successful. What are these tools?

1. Use a visual schedule regularly. Paradoxically, teaching individuals with autism to use a schedule gives them the ability to be more independent. Schedules enable persons with autism to understand their world, organize their thinking, and sequence their lives. By illustrating a change on the schedule visually, we are helping the individual to process the change and cope more effectively.

2. Show and discuss a “game plan” before going leaving home. Using the schedule, explain what will be happening, identify how it might feel and how you will help. Some people use Carol Gray’s Social Stories™ but a simple script can be just as useful. Keep in mind that pictures and/or written words are far more effective than just talking. The auditory processing channel is not as efficient as the visual channel in many people with autism. The child needs to feel some sense of control over what is happening. These kids too often feel an acute anxiety over what is or what could happen to them.

3. Illustrate clear expectations for your child. Warning a child that you expect them to be good won’t do the job. What does being “good” look like? And sound like? A checklist of these behaviors, a social script, or a set of visual pictures may be the tools that make the difference in the success of the outing. Parents may even find it useful to role play restaurant, church, dentist, or doctor before the child encounters the real thing. The point is that, individuals with autism don’t instinctively know what is expected of them in given situations. Parents and caregivers can bridge this understanding by identifying the expectations in a constructive and non threatening manner.

4. Pack the “tools of the trade”. There are some items that I never leave home without: a visual clock, sand timer, coloring books/ small quiet toys, white board and marker or paper to write messages to your child (talk less, show what you mean with pictures/words). Sensory toys (squishy balls, vibrating pens, fabric or sandpaper that the child enjoys touching) are also important tools because they can help the child to self regulate. We all have items that we feel more comfortable having with us; a coffee, a favorite pen, pictures of our family, or a “lucky charm” are some objects that bring some of us a sort of comfort and inner stability. Persons with autism may have the need to carry different objects for similar purposes.

5. Provide information about your child that others will need in order to serve your child. I personally believe that explaining some of your child’s basic needs to a dentist, doctor, store clerk, waitress or any person that may misunderstand your child is far more fair to everyone involved. Sharing doesn’t mean gaining sympathy or telling a life story. It could be as simple as, “Please give my child more time to respond.” When our son began being invited to birthday parties, we contacted the host parents and let them know some of the basic information that they would need to know in order to make the birthday run smoothly. This info may be that the child doesn’t like the birthday song, or clapping sounds and he will therefore “be in the washroom” while this is happening. One parent even identified a “quiet spot” that our son could retreat to if he was feeling overwhelmed. Information is power.

6. Give yourself plenty of time. A rushed errand will too often be disastrous because, as many parents know, the more hurried we are, the slower our children move! Our kids with autism are busy dealing with their own stress; they can’t possibly cope with ours as well!

Every ounce of energy and thought that we put into planning for out of home experiences for individuals with autism will multiply into benefits for everyone. As a teacher of students with severely debilitating autism and a mother of a son with autism I am very much aware that the task of breaking into the fast paced world with a person with autism is not an easy one. I know first hand that it can be downright terrifying to bring six students with autism to a zoo, a church, a restaurant or a supermarket but the learning that happens for the students, the staff and for the community is well worth the effort. We enrich each other’s lives when we move beyond the comfort zone of our own homes and schools.

See Also:

8 Ways to Survive a Family Holiday with a Child with Autism
There are ways to alleviate some of the stress and create an enjoyable getaway for every member of the family when vacationing with a child with autism. Some simple guidelines and smart planning will make a big difference!

About The Author

Jennifer Krumins is a full time teacher in Ontario, Canada with 20 years of experience in special education and the regular classroom. A mother of three (one of which has autism) she is currently teaching severely challenged teen boys and girls with autism. Please feel free to visit Jennifer’s website at http://www.autismaspirations.com or email her at krumins@autismaspirations.com

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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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