Being outside has benefits for everyone including children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). For most people with ASD, being outdoors can offer benefits for their overall physical health, their well-being, and their development. When it comes to encouraging your child or someone you know to participate in outdoor events or activities, there are a few things to keep in mind to help them stay safe and to help them enjoy the experience as much as possible. We’ll share with you some tips on how to help people with autism have a positive experience during outdoor events and activities.
A few activities that children with autism (and adults) might experience, especially during the summer months, include events that may cause excessive sensory stimulation. For example, fireworks on the Fourth of July or a vacation in a crowded city. This change in routine may also lead them to encounter situations outside their comfort zone resulting in a display of unsafe behaviors, like elopement. Let’s take a closer look at how you can support children (and adults) with autism, or how individuals with ASD can manage these experiences themselves so that outdoor events and activities can be both safe and enjoyable.
Outdoor events could be a way of increasing skills for people with autism, such as increasing psychological flexibility, improving social and communication skills, and encouraging new interests. It is important to be cautious if you are a caregiver for a child or adult with autism as they encounter these irregularities in routine, until you can predict their reaction and plan for it.
To clarify what we mean by psychological flexibility, let’s look at a statement by Ramaci and colleagues (2019):
“Psychological flexibility is defined as being in contact with the present moment, fully aware of emotions, sensations, and thoughts, welcoming them, including the undesired ones, and moving in a pattern of behavior in the service of chosen values. In simpler words this means accepting our own thoughts and emotions and acting on long-term values rather than short-term impulses, thoughts, and feelings that are often linked to experiential avoidance and a way to control unwanted inner events.”
When it comes to people with autism and outdoor events, we can help support their psychological flexibility by encouraging them to be mindful and present in the moment. Parents can help their children recognize what they are feeling and then help teach them to accept those things.
Additionally, parents can encourage their children to behave in ways that encourages the child to act in their best interests – mentally, emotionally, and physically, while aligning with their goals. It is important to consider the needs of the child, and how receptive they are of new experiences overall, so they are not pushed too far away from their comfort zone.
Watching fireworks can be overstimulating. It can be loud. The crowds of people can be overwhelming. One way to help children with autism have a better experience watching fireworks is to explain what they can expect from the event ahead of time. Talk about how the fireworks will be noisy. Talk about the amount of people that will be around. You might also show them pictures or videos of what it’s like to go see fireworks.
If your family takes part in other activities, such as going to a family member’s house or going to a party, you can discuss this with your child, as well. Try to highlight the parts of the experience that your child might enjoy, such as getting a special treat (like ice-cream). It can also be helpful to bring your child’s favorite items, such as favorite toys or handheld video games or a smartphone, so they have something to focus on if they aren’t enjoying the show or the social experiences around them. You could also bring noise canceling headphones or basic headphones that can play music to help them tune out the noises around them if needed.
Outdoor activities and events can come with lots of people. Children with autism might get overwhelmed when they are in or near crowds. They might be around crowds of people at the beach, at the park, at a family gathering, or while the family is on vacation in a large city.
To help children with autism manage and tolerate being around crowds, consider how you can keep your child from getting too overwhelmed. You might plan how he or she can take a break from the crowd if they need it. For example, if they are stressed about the crowded beach, they should be encouraged to take a 15-minute break in the car with you while your family is at the beach.
When children with autism attend outdoor events, they may experience sensory overload. Outdoor events provide a lot of sensory stimulation to anyone, but children with ASD might get overwhelmed by this. To help children with ASD manage sensory input during outdoor activities, consider their senses and what might help them have a better experience. For instance, they could wear noise-cancelling headphones when it’s too loud. They could wear sunglasses if it’s too bright. They could bring something tactile to touch, rub, or fidget with to manage their sense of touch.
The summer often comes with changes in routine. Many children are out of school for the summer. Many families go on vacations or take part in more outdoor activities and attend events as compared to how often they do these types of things during the rest of the year. Changes in routines like these may have a negative impact on children with autism if they aren’t taught to cope with change effectively.
To help your child cope with these changes, one strategy we recommend is to use a calendar. Inform your child what events are coming up as opposed to just telling them the day of that you are going somewhere. Also, be sure to be cautious about not planning to do too much. Many children (and adults) get exhausted and stressed when they deviate too much from routine day-to-day activities. Be sure to plan for relaxation days and time to wind down after busy events.
Safety is always a top priority. When children with autism attend outdoor events, have a plan for how to keep them safe. If your child tends to run away (or even if they don’t), plan for how they will be supervised. For instance, will both parents take turns watching them? Will you ask someone you know who is attending the event with you to watch the child when you need to attend to someone or something else (such as taking care of a toddler or going to the bathroom)?
Can your child swim? If you are going to be near water, it’s important to communicate with your child the rules related to whether they can go in the water or if they need to stay away from the water.
Since things can happen despite our best efforts, it can be helpful to have some way your child can be identified if they get lost, such as a bracelet or ID of some sort with their name and your contact information.
It’s also a good strategy to keep a first aid kit on hand, as well.
Outdoor events can be enjoyable for kids with autism. These events can also encourage skill development and foster greater well-being and quality of life for kids and adults with ASD. However, outdoor events can be stressful and even dangerous at times. With the tips we recommended, you can not only help kids and adults with autism stay safe, but you can help them enjoy outdoor events, as well.
Hülsheger, U. R., Alberts, H. J., Feinholdt, A., and Lang, J. W. (2013). Benefits of mindfulness at work: The role of mindfulness in emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and job satisfaction. J. Appl. Psychol. 98:310. doi: 10.1037/a0031313
Ramaci, T., Bellini, D., Presti, G., & Santisi, G. (2019). Psychological Flexibility and Mindfulness as Predictors of Individual Outcomes in Hospital Health Workers. Frontiers in Psychology. 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01302
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