Photo source: www.madamenoire.com, www.parentingthroughschoolyears.com
It is super common that when I start working with a family one of the issues they describe to me is being unable to take their child into various community locations. I hear things like "I have to get a babysitter to go grocery shopping", or "We stopped going to church 2 years ago", or "We USED to go to (insert community location here) but it just got too difficult so we stopped". I hear stories like this on a regular basis where the whole family lives in a shrunken down world of just a few places (i.e. home, school, Grandma's house).
This is always an area I seek to target through intervention, because this is such an unrealistic thing to avoid. Its kind of like failing to teach toileting; this is a life skill that must be addressed.
People live in communities, so to avoid or completely stop taking your child into community settings due to difficulties or challenges is to miss out on a multitude of learning opportunities. I'll say it another way: I learn how to act in a library by going to the library. I learn how to wait in a line at the post office by going to the post office. I learn how to order food in a restaurant by going to a restaurant. Make sense?
Here are some general tips and guidelines for successful community outings:
- Go - Yeah.....my first tip is just to go outside. Fear is crippling, and it will lock you in a box. Even if you feel afraid of what may happen or what could go wrong, do not let that stop you from taking your child to community locations. More than being brave, I would emphasize being prepared. Which leads to the next point------
- Preparation is key - Preparation is one of those things that often gets skipped over. Unfortunately, you don't know how unprepared you are until you are in a rapidly deteriorating scene. So its better to over prepare than to under prepare. If you have ABA staff or are working with a BCBA, schedule outings for when these people will be present. Backup is good. Take your spouse, or a friend with you just in case challenging behaviors occur (also, just having the support is nice). Visuals are your friend. Prep your child in advance by explaining simply where you will go, and what they need to do there. Use a visual to help make your words concrete and clear. Take the visual with you, as well as a few reinforcers your child loves. Connect being in community locations with receiving reinforcement.
- K.I.S.S. - No, not keep it simple stupid: keep it SHORT sweetie. :-) Especially when you first decide to work on this, I don't suggest taking your child to see a 2 hour movie.....that likely wont go well. Start small. Go walk around the grocery store for 5 minutes, go mail a letter at the post office, go look at fish at a pet store and then walk out. Keep it brief, and leave on a high note (leave before things start to go south).
- Engagement is key - Make sure whatever the setting is, your child has something to do. This is not exclusive to Autism. Kids get bored...they start requesting things....requests get denied...behaviors start. Lets sidestep that whole ugly little chain by going in prepared (see #2). If you're at a grocery store, your child can help put items in the cart and find things on the shelves. If you're at the mall, your child can carry bags. I know some of you may be thinking "My child is not yet at a point where they can follow an instruction or help out at a store". Not a problem. Then bring distractor tasks with you. A distractor task is just something your child can engage with. This could be a kaleidoscope, some headphones to wear, a squishy ball to squeeze, etc.
- Stay strong - You knew this was coming, right? Sorry. There's just no getting around it. If behaviors erupt in the community setting what is the last thing you want to do? Leave. Why is that? Well, this will actually serve an escape response which is the last thing you want to do. Over time, your child will start exhibiting behaviors as soon as you drive up to the community setting so that they can leave. I know its hard. I know people stare. I know its embarrassing. I know people will judge your parenting abilities. Here's the good news: over time, as you keep returning to the community setting and following steps 1-4 the behaviors should drop down, and down, and down. Do yourself a favor and go into the community during "dead times": go see a matinee, or arrive to the restaurant 5 minutes after it opens, or go bowling on a Tuesday afternoon. Go out at times when places are more likely to be empty, and all the judgemental people are at work :-)
Lastly, I have to add another huge reason why its so important to take your child out and about in their local community. Earlier I mentioned the dazzling array of learning opportunities available for your child. What about other people in your community? How do people learn to live and interact with people with disabilities if they never encounter people with disabilities? Diversity awareness is not as widespread as some may believe. I encounter the stares, pointing, whispering, or rude comments when I am out with my clients today just as I did years ago as a newbie ABA therapist. When people see you out and about teaching your child skills in the community, they are getting an opportunity to learn and grow as well.
Community Outing social story
Community Outing Teaching Protocol
Going to the Store social story
Going to the Movies visual