A few years ago, I was at a School meeting to discuss ways to make our entire District more inclusive. When discussing a potential mission statement for the group, one member mentioned making Special Education students “Community ready” by graduation as an end goal.
I thought about what those words implied: Community Ready. As a parent, it was clear my parent perspective was different from the educators eagerly nodding their heads in agreement. I have two young boys with autism, Greyson is 9 and Parker is 7.
I raised my hand to speak, “My boys are already community ready, at least I hope so, because we are out in the community daily” I shared. “This doesn’t mean they are perfectly behaved or can navigate the world independently- far from it. I simply mean, we go out in the community every single day, imperfectly, because that’s the only way to live and to learn. It may take some time to become successful participating members of the community, and that is something we work on.” Yes, community outings can be challenging for a child with autism spectrum disorder. As I work with my boys to help support them in the community, I also need the community to work just as hard at managing their expectations of people with autism.
Except for serious safety or health concerns, I can’t think of why anyone with autism would not be out in the community. We need groceries. We have doctors appointments. We go to playgrounds, and post offices and birthday parties. We can’t stay home every day until we reach certain predefined standards set by society.
There have been times I have stayed at home because leaving was too hard, so I get it. There’s been times I’ve sat in my car before getting out to give myself a pep talk. There’s times I’ve gotten in my car after the playground or a rough trip to Target in tears. But just like my boys- we try and try again. Sometimes we are loud and chaotic on a trip to the grocery store. We may ear piercingly scream if we have to take a turn waiting for a swing in the park. We may turn heads by being loud and messy at a restaurant. And that’s all ok.
Outing at 7-11. Working on: staying by mom, not touching all the things, only selecting one item, and interacting with the cashier.
One of the most well-known autistic adults, Temple Grandin says we need to have high, yet reasonable expectations for people with autism. She shares, “It hurts because they don’t have enough expectations for the kids. I see too many kids who are smart and did well in school, but they’re not getting a job because when they were young, they didn’t learn any work skills,” Grandin said. “They’ve got no life skills. The parents think, ‘Oh, poor Tommy. He has autism so he doesn’t have to learn things like shopping.”
So, where do you begin?
PICK A PLACE:
Ask yourself, what outings might be a priority for the student to engage in? Then look for ones that could be a good fit for that student. We want them to be successful, so we select something the child has a greater likelihood to do successfully (i.e.- you aren’t going to take a child who cannot tolerate loud sounds to a music concert).
Preparing is often the most important step. Evidence based practices, such as antecedent based interventions, visual supports and positive reinforcement helps family members and professionals take steps to make participating in the community a meaningful and educational experience for all.
The Autism Helper has some incredible community resources that makes teaching life skills interactive and accessible to all leaners. Life skills education containing exposure to the community enables students to have more functional independence. This BUNDLE focuses on common locations our students go in the community: The Restaurant, The Mall, The Park, and The Grocery Store.
Clear expectations are important in reducing unpredictability, and help the child know what to expect and what is expected from them in advance. Use a picture or written activity schedule to provide the child with a plan. Bring reinforcement.
Bring any items such as sunglasses, a weighted vest, headphones that may help your child if he has sensory needs.
Gradually increase the time as the child gets familiar with the environment. Leave on a positive note if possible. My boys got into a routine when we would go to Target.
Usually when we when we went, we often walked through the entire store- including the toy section every single time. In one instance, I went into Target to grab just one thing, both boys started sobbing and screaming when I attempted to pay for our item without exploring the entire store. One hallmark symptom of Autism Spectrum Disorders is what is called rigidity or a difficulty in adapting to changing environments. I realized this was a problem that we needed to resolve.
Start with short periods of time, and frequent reinforcement. In the Target instance, we started doing structured outings at Target with our Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Tutor. If you don’t have therapists to help, grab another adult if you are able. During structured outings, we didn’t go out in the community to actually shop, our goal was to begin to rewire the rigidity of needing to walk through the entire store. We started with just five minutes. We had a token board and gave frequent reinforcement (Good job staying by mom! Good job coming back! Good job keeping your hand on the cart!) After five tokens were earned, we quickly went to the check-out lane and bought orange Tic Tacs- a HIGHLY preferred item. We gradually increased the time of these outings, until needing to go through the entire store was no longer an issue.
Not all teaching experiences in the community setting need to focus on new skills. We can also use community participation as an opportunity for children to generalize current skills and strengths. Generalizing a skill means to engage in a skill in a different place, with different people, and/or with different objects.
REINFORCE like crazy. Celebrate small steps. Catch them being good. Learn from each experience, and see what you might need to do more/less/different for the next time. Most importantly, don’t give up!
Although it can be challenging, involving children with autism spectrum disorder on community outings as much as possible is important. Success over time is more likely the more children are exposed to appropriate and planned outings. It may take additional preparation and support, but this practice helps to make the experiences more comfortable and enjoyable and helps students with autism be meaningful members of the communities in which they live. They are ready now, are you?