The Challenges of Walking with Your ASD Child
Going for a walk with your child can be one of the most therapeutic activities you can engage in. Walking has several phys- ical health benefits – it builds coordination, stronger leg muscles, improves blood circulation, increases your Vitamin D absorption, and regulates breathing patterns. This activity comes with several mental health benefits as well – it is relaxing and helps beat stress and anxiety; it also helps build mental clarity and focus. There are also emotional benefits, as walking with your child allows you to spend quality time together and opportunities to communicate and connect.
Walking is also an important life skill, something your child needs to learn to enhance his independence and well-being. How- ever, walking with a child on the spectrum can sometimes be chal- lenging. The child’s difficulties with physical stamina, focus, safety awareness, pacing, and impulse control can make the activity so dif- ficult that parents often give up on this simple pleasure.
Here are some helpful strategies to address the above challenges:
Limited Stamina – If the child tires easily, build his stamina through gentle exercises that can be done at the jungle gym. Climbing the ladder/stairs and going down the slide a few times is a great activity. Start going for a very short walk – just down to the end of your street and back is good enough. Whenever you feel your child is ready, add on another street to your walk.
Practice – Another thing that builds stamina is to practice walking everyday. To avoid monotony, try walking in a variety of settings. If you take your child to the park, have him walk around the play- ground before he uses the swings. Take him along with you to run errands – grocery shopping, picking up school supplies, etc. Practice safe walking in parking lots. During rainy weather, you can walk in the mall or a large store. Make these trips meaningful by having an end result – such as buying ingredients for tonight’s dinner or something needed for school.
Safety Awareness – Teach your child the concept of ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’. You can try a simple game at home, where you hold up a green ‘Go’ sign and you walk down the corridor, then hold up the red ‘Stop’ sign, and then have him come to a complete stop. After practicing this for a while, fade out the signs and use verbal commands. Lat- er, you can replace the verbal commands with physical prompts. Now try it on your walks – practice dramatically stopping, checking both sides of the street for traffic, and then going at crossings. For some children, learning to ‘hold hands’ at crossings works best. In either case, absolutely forbid running across the street.
Pacing – Some children walk extremely slowly, others run in short bursts, and sometimes, a child can alternate between the two modes. To discourage this type of uneven pacing, begin the walk by holding hands. Slow down your pace from an adult one to more of a child one, but don’t slow down too much. Create a comfort- able pace, somewhere between your brisk adult one, and a child’s dragging feet one. Holding your child’s hand forces him to keep up with this pace. Let go his hand in short intervals. Over time, you will see him keeping up this pace during the intervals because his body has fallen into a rhythm. With more practice, you can let go of his hand for longer intervals building up to the point where he doesn’t need any more hand holding (assuming the child has some safety awareness – if the child is being unsafe, then safety awareness must be taught prior to pacing).
Impulse Control – Some children may burst into a run upon see- ing an object they desire – the swings across the street, something they can stim on, or another child’s toy. While we may make the child’s home and school settings very predictable, there’s no tell- ing what the child may encounter outside. This can make it very unsafe and to avoid this, the same behavior management tech- niques that are being used at his school and home settings need to be employed. Generally this involves teaching the child to ‘ask permission’ (using either words or pictures) before reaching for an object or moving to a farther location.
Focus - Finally, don’t forget to make walking fun for both of you – this not only builds a child’s focus, it’s also a great way to connect with your child. Stop to observe interesting objects along the way – funny shaped rocks, unique plants and flowers, insects and squirrels, and different types of trees. Explore and feel the various textures along the way – the rough bark of a tree, the softness of a petal, the crunchiness of dried leaves. Take pictures of him exploring these textures, so you can talk about it at a later time. Encourage your child’s curiosity and follow his lead with things that seem to catch his attention. Also, draw his attention to things that interest you.
Even though walking is such a simple pleasure that most people take for granted, parents of special needs children must put in some work to make it a regular part of their lives. As your walks become less stressful and more enjoyable, you can cele- brate by blowing on dandelions and making wishes!
Shanti Kurada is the Editor and Publisher of Autism Bay Area magazine. She has volunteered extensively in the community, organizing workshops and support groups for families of children with autism. She enjoys working with parents and professionals in helping to build a supportive community in which ASD children can grow and succeed.
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