Family Outings & Sensory Challenges


    Moira Sullivan, M.A., O.T.R.


    Going to the park on a Saturday afternoon.   Attending a youth league soccer game.  Having a family meal in a local restaurant.  Families who have a child with autism often find themselves reluctant to engage in activities such as these out in their community.

    This is easier to understand when you consider the effect the environment may have on a child who has autism.  Often sensory input most of us take for granted is intrusive and upsetting for these children.  This can lead to meltdowns which seem to have no trigger, turning what should be an ordinary outing into an ordeal.  Any parent who has been subject to the stares from others can attest that having your child go into full tantrum mode in public is embarrassing at best and it’s easier to avoid the prospect than take the chance.

    On the other hand, families run the risk of becoming disconnected from family and friends, from co-workers and classmates, from the community. The child on the autism spectrum doesn’t get to practice social and recreational skills in the community.

    Here are 5 strategies to help make family outings work:

    1. Teach your child skills related to the outing – for example, park activities include biking, playing catch, or riding a scooter.  A restaurant requires sitting still and eating independence. Children with autism often have difficulty with movement and sensory processing, which makes it harder for them to these skills.  Breaking down complex tasks into their smallest parts is helpful, allowing for enough time to master the skills.

    2. Remember to teach skills for the real world.  For example, biking without support wheels is not mastery.  The child must learn to stay on the path, follow directions, stop or slow down as needed.

    3. Generalize skills in small steps.  Once your child has developed eating independence at home., generalize this skill at a friend’s house.  This allows you to figure out what the challenges are in a safe environment.  Try eating at picnicking areas at the park.  Then try it at a kid friendly restaurant with lots of booths.

    4. Provide supports as needed. The child who has trouble waiting for food at a restaurant may need some activities, apps on an iPad, and manipulatives to keep hands busy.  A child who does not tolerate too much noise may be calmer when using an MP3 player.

    5. Pay attention to your child’s cues. Teaching your child to recognize what is going on in their internal world in response to sensory information from the environment is important. Thus, a child who is very sensitive to crowds can learn to ask for a break when it becomes overwhelming, rather than bursting into tears.

    Children love to play catch with mom, build a fort with their sister or brother, or go to the beach with their family.  Even children who have difficulty with expressive language show their delight through smiles and laughter. During a recent conference, a panel of young adults with autism spectrum disorder shared their experiences.  They said the most important thing anyone can do is to make them feel like they belong. So get out into the community, if even for a short while.  The payoff will be tremendous for everyone.

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