Going out to different places in the community is an activity most families engage in to enjoy some ‘Family Time’ together. Most families enjoy going out to places like malls, parks, swimming pools and playgrounds during the weekends and school holidays. Spending some quality family time helps build interaction and strengthen bonds between family members, allows everyone to unwind from work, school and other responsibilities.
However, going out to the community can be challenging for families with children with autism, perhaps even for families with typically-developing children. In the community, there are various safety concerns, one particular example is the risk of children wandering off from the adults.
Here at EAP, we have had success stories of our children staying with the adults in the community, and we would like to share some tips on how to teach your child to stay with you in the community.
SET YOUR CHILD UP TO BE SUCCESSFUL
Firstly, get to know your child’s interests and skill sets. Find out their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, ability to generalise skills in other settings, and understanding their behaviours from their perspectives. Also, do identify potential challenges in advance.
1. Plan the trip to a place that is of best interest to your child, where they can be successful.
- Consider the environment. Bright or dark places, loud or quiet places, etc. Is the place usually crowded? Places with high visual and auditory stimulation can be potentially challenging for some children with autism.
- Find a suitable timing. Most places in the community can be crowded during weekends or peak hours. We would suggest bringing your child to the community at a time when there is less crowd and/or noises.
- Establish motivation and reward. An important component of your child’s success is MOTIVATION. It is important to reward your child for every effort he/she makes, be it small or big. It may also be beneficial to assign a specific reward to be given to your child when they do demonstrate expected behaviours like staying with you.
2. Clearly communicate expectations to your child in a way he/she understands:
- What is happening and the flow of the event.
- Utilise a Social Story and Visual Schedule while communicating to your child.
- Have a visual of “Stay with mummy/daddy” with you all the time and allow your child to also see and when they do stay with you. Communicate the components as well; for example your child gets a small piece of cookie when they stay with you and 1 big cookie when they stay with you throughout family time. Social praises should be maintained high throughout your time at the location.
- Additionally you could use a video model to communicate expectations to stay with you (e.g. hold mummy’s hand, stay next to mummy).
3. Prepare the following materials if necessary:
- Social story: include information like where and when will you be going, what will happen, how will the event flow look like, who will be there (familiar and unfamiliar faces). Include potential distractions specific to your child (i.e. bright toy shops in malls, adult pool at the clubhouse, ponds in parks). Clarify and communicate that these places are not to be accessed by your child. Instead, add on more pictures of FUN places they will get to see.
- Visual schedule: clear pictures on the flow of the event (i.e.: walk and stay with mummy/daddy, specific activities like riding the bicycle/scooter).
- Token system: depending on the positive behaviour support plan designed for your child, this will help give them predictability for reward time, be it something tangible like a toy or candy, a break time to play with the iPad.
- Activities: ensure that the activity you want your child to do during the family time is successful for them and not a new skill to learn. It would be more beneficial to have them engaged in activities that they are successful at, and would be more FUN to do with mummy or daddy (i.e. blowing bubbles at each other at the park).
TEACH YOUR CHILD THE SKILLS REQUIRED
- Responding to instructions such as “Stop!”, “Wait”, “Walk nicely”. A skill that would be beneficial is the ability to respond to their name being called in potentially crowded places. This would be a great skill to reduce the chances of them wandering off. Pair this instruction with reinforcement and social praise.
- Desensitisation (if necessary). Many children with autism have tolerance issues. These may differ from one child to another, ranging from flashing lights, environmental factors in the location, crowd, unfamiliar faces, etc. A proper desensitization plan will need to be planned out to address the tolerance issue. Systematically and gradually desensitize your child to each element.
- Practice. Your child will need to practice staying with an adult in different locations (i.e. beginning at home, in the porch, and systematically and gradually build the steps until it can be practiced in the community). This gradual transition should only be considered once success is observed across a few attempts.
HAVE A BACKUP PLAN
- Have a Behaviour Plan and brief the whole family on this plan. At EAP, our Behaviour Plan includes Teaching Strategies, Preventative Strategies and Reactive Strategies. The above points outline all the teaching and preventative strategies.
- As for Reactive Strategies, have a space where your child is able to go to to calm down, as well as successful activities to be redirected to if they get overwhelmed with environmental factors like crowds.
- Be prepared for unexpected events like a carnival at the park you've chosen to attend. Such unpredictability will impact your child's overall success. Be prepared to change your plan for family time. If this is required, revert back to a safe and familiar place and communicate the change and expectations clearly to your child.
- If it reaches a point where the family time needs to be rescheduled entirely, be prepared to do so, however do not give up. Reflect on the day and the expectations and what changes can be made to make this process more successful.
- An additional safety measure would be to use a handgrip attached to your child's wrist and yours. This would be a last resort should it be too overwhelming for your child.
The above ideas are some of the basic guidelines to help assist your child to stay with you when the family is out in the community. As each child with autism is different, these suggestions will need to be individualized to further meet the different requirements of each child.
We wish you the very best in planning and having a great and SAFE family time! Please do not hesitate to contact us at 20940421 or at firstname.lastname@example.org should you need anymore assistance.