parents with their child on day out

Autism Parenting: Tips For Trips Out With An Autistic Child

Note: I enjoy writing blog posts that I would have found useful a few years back, as I set off on the journey of being an autism parent. They’re still useful to me now tbh as a reminder of how to act. Hopefully they’re of some use to other too.

One of the true gifts or parenthood is going out with your children, sharing experiences, having adventures.

If you have an autistic child, perhaps you have slightly fewer trips out, certainly you choose where and when to go carefully.

However, you still have trips out. They might not always go perfectly, but you still try. These are my trips for having great trips out with your autistic child.

Completion Doesn’t Equal Success.

We went as a family to watch Toy Story 4 at the autism screening this weekend, only problem being the film’s only just out, the cinema was packed, it was all a bit overwhelming for D.

He went home with Mum, I stayed with his brother.

Success for D was agreeing to come, giving the cinema another go after two years of not even trying, even getting as far as walking into the screening and then being able to say that, actually, it was all a bit much. We were proud of him.

While sat there for another 90 minutes with his brother, it was hard not to observe a parent a few rows ahead, his son clearly distressed, they went out a few times and came back in, each time the boy crying, screaming even to go home.

‘You’re doing well,’ the Dad said, let’s stay til the end.

No – you’ve done well. We can go if you want to.

Remember Who The Trip Is For

I’ll move on from Toy Story 4 in a sec (quick review – superb).

Anyway, autism friendly screenings are a wonderful thing, however just because a screening is autism friendly it does not mean that every autistic child is going to enjoy the experience.

If your child is distressed mid film, do what’s best for them and, if that’s leaving, then go. You don’t need to see the end of the film – you can read what happens via the plot summary on Wikipedia, or pay to go in another time, or wait for the DVD to come out.

It’s not always easy, I took D to a T20 cricket match once, the moment to leave coming four overs from the end of a match perfectly poised. Instead of seeing 47 runs hit off 24 balls to secure an unlikely two-wicket win, I got to piggbyback my grateful son out into the late summer evening. It was a lot nicer.

Just Because It Went Well Previously…

All children change over time. Do autistic children change more? Christ knows, what we can say is that the changes might have more of an impact when it comes to trips out.

If a neurotypical child wasn’t still a huge fan of soft play they’d probably put up with it, an autistic child who can no longer cope with a setting won’t have that same option of suffering in silence, their distress will be too profound.

In the previous point, I mentioned going to the cricket. Two or three years back, that was a viable option – we’d have to choose carefully, a domestic game with a relatively small crowd, but it was an outing we would approach with some confidence.

Now, though, I wouldn’t even consider taking D to a professional cricket match. His anxiety at the size of crowd would be too great, no good could come of it.

Autism Friendly Isn’t A Guarantee Of Success

I love autism quiet hours and friendly sessions, so much so I wrote about just how great they are.

There’s that saying though, if you’ve met one autistic child, you’ve met one autistic child. An autism friendly session is that event but with some adjustments made – fewer people, perhaps lights and noises turned down.

The sessions make it easier for children to access facilities that would be of interest to them but they aren’t a magic wand that makes the session perfect for every child on the spectrum.

We find, that autism friendly swimming sessions are perfect for us, so too those at Sea Life. The Cat Cafe in Manchester also has a regular autism hour – we love that.

There are others that I am delighted to see come into existence, they are superb additions for the autism community, but they are no more relevant to us than the weather in Arkansas.

Make The Lead-Up Stress Free

If you’ve got a trip out planned, then the activity itself is the part to focus on, do what you can to make sure anxiety levels are slow as it starts.

Driving there, does having the radio off help? Your child need a haircut, is the morning of the day out the best time to brave the barber?

The activity is the key thing for the day, a lazy morning before it is fine, getting up later is OK, doing whatever you can to keep anxiety levels down is perfect.

Sometimes an activity can act as a reset button, we’ve had days where it’s seemed almost impossible to leave the house, yet going to quiet swimming (somehow getting to the car!) has completely turned the day round.

Generally, though, if you want to have the best chance of success it’s best to start from as calm a base as possible.

Don’t Let The Fear Of What Might Happen Put You Off

An autistic child will have meltdowns, that seems pretty inevitable, sometimes they will have meltdowns while you are out and about with them as the environment combines to overwhelm the senses.

What I’ve had to learn is that you can’t let the fear of your child having a meltdown or becoming anxious put you off trips, activities and trying things.

There is, though, a balance. You’re trying things that have a good chance of being successful, you just can’t be certain. You might be going to a quiet session for an activity they have shown an interest in, it is a trip you hope the child will love.

The not letting fear affect your decision is not to give a licence to try any old event that you know is likely to prove stressful. I could take D to a junior disco, I’d go with trepidation of a meltdown occurring and said meltdown would almost certainly occur. It’s an environment I know he’d hate, taking him would be tantamount to cruelty.

Not going to a session isn’t cruel, but repeatedly avoiding things because of a fear of what might happen is failing to give a child an opportunity to find hobbies and enjoy experiences.

By all means don’t go to things, but be certain the motivation for the choice are driven by the child’s needs and not yours.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up If It Doesn’t Go Well

If you try things and the reason for trying is sound, things will go wrong sometimes.

If you have a trip out and it doesn’t go as you had planned – I won’t say badly as there’s no need to see any trip out in negative terms – you can reflect on why it went as it did but don’t be critical of yourself.

Being a parent is hard, I’d argue that being a parent to a child who lives in a world not suited to their needs is much harder.

Let others pass their silent judgment, they might see a meltdown or quirky behaviour and their lack of knowledge makes them label it as bad parenting. They know nothing.

Any parent to an autistic child is doing an amazing job by balancing the needs to provide a fulfilling childhood with the requirement to provide a suitable environment.

Occasionally, you’ll try something and half way through wish you hadn’t. Please don’t beat yourself up over it.

Don’t See Any One Trip As Part Of A Larger Whole

I read a blog post once from a mother to an autistic child in which she described how her child had screamed through an entire showing at the cinema.

She saw this as great parenting.

Ignoring the question of whether to allow a child to scream unchecked through a 90-minute film is fair to other filmgoers, what of her child?

She argued that she was building up tolerance, the next trip would be better. Extreme immersion was the route forward to understanding the world and being able to cope in it.

I feel for her poor child.

Yes, avoiding all contact with the outside world is not helping any child adapt. As parents to autistic children we hope our youngsters grow into adults who are confident and able to function in the wider world.

That, though, happens through love and providing a positive childhood.

There is no timetable to be on, each trip out isn’t taking you a chunk closer to a final goal. See everything for what it is – it’s hopefully an enjoyable activity, its a trip out, it’s a chance to try something new.

Good things will come from that without any need to worry about the progress.

Turn Down Events You Know Will Be Overwhelming

There’s a birthday party with every child in the class invited…

A few parents are going to meet at the soft play on Saturday morning, would you like to come…

It’s nice to get invites, it’s tempting to automatically say yes. Maybe you’ve got nothing planned, it might seem rude to turn it down.

Is it what you’d chose to do though? Take away the term birthday party and would you be taking your child to a room full of 30 children, music, lights and other sensory invasions?

Would you be planning a trip to soft play at the busiest time of there week as your go-to Saturday morning activity?

If you know it will be overwhelming then turn it down. The rejection can offer an alternative or an explanation – they find parties overwhelming but thanks for the invite; we can’t make soft play but if anyone would like to come round for a playdate another time…

With a neurotypical child perhaps it is easier to tag on to the plans of others and join in. With an autistic child you need to be that bit more selective, factoring in the environment into your decision.

Always Use Positive Reinforcement

Always find the positives from any trip or event.

If it hasn’t gone to plan then the child will naturally be upset, kindness and reassurance are key.

Praise could be how brave they were to even come, or how well they did in saying they weren’t happy and wanted to go.

There are always so many small things to be proud of, mention these rather than the moments that might come more readily to mind in an immediate debrief.

Reinforcement also helps you establish that team bond, how you are working together to make everything alright. You’ve both learnt about what works and what doesn’t you can both use that to inform future trips out.

What Works For You?

I’ve missed something, I can sense it… What tips should I have mentioned, what works for you when planning a trip out with an autistic child?

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