Figuring out activities that work for both an autistic 6-year old and a typical 4-year old can be a challenge. But I’m surrounded by a lot of creative moms and I’ve learned a few things.
I feel like (positive and negative) awareness of special needs is at an all-time high and I encourage families with children with special needs to get comfortable with getting out with your kids of all abilities. Here are the top things I keep in mind when planning activities that work for all of us:
- SELL THE IDEA
My 6-year old, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s and general anxiety, isn’t a fan of new ideas–even if what you’re proposing is super fun. New things make him anxious. And he is very good at recruiting his typical brother into his anxious/negative state of mind if left to his own devices. So if I really want to try something new, I go into the discussion with good details that tie to their interests, I make my pitch, I validate that they’re unsure about this new idea and then I suggest we think about it for 5 minutes and discuss it again. Usually by that time, he has regulated his anxiety and become curious and more open to the new activity.
- BALANCE PLANNING WITH FLEXIBILITY
I check the website before going anywhere or I ask someone who has already been there for their tips. We also start any outing by sitting down and talking through it (i.e. we are going to explore this part of the zoo first, then eat lunch, then play on the playground and then do a ride and then we will see how we are feeling). This is a great time to set some expectations (stay with the group, no climbing, no whining for treats, etc.).
I’ve found that this planning helps both boys be more flexible about participating in parts of activities that they have little interest in. And by planning, we ensure everyone’s interests are paid attention to during the activity. If a map is available at an activity, I always let the kids look at it and identify what they really want to do. Knowing their priorities helps manage expectations if we come across something unexpectedly fascinating (i.e. we can spend 45 minutes splashing in that mud puddle, but the consequence is we might miss out on the tiger feeding…talk to your brother and agree).
Which brings me to a point that is important—sometimes, plans have to be flung into the wind! If both kids are happy, call an audible.
- KEEP IT SIMPLE
Note my planning tips don’t involve intricate sequences of events. In fact, I keep activities simple (I rarely piggyback two activities in a day, such as a childrens’ museum AND lunch at Red Robin) and keep checking the pulse as time goes on. And I almost always do a new outing with just my kids until we establish a routine (i.e. we practiced going to the zoo a lot before inviting friends).
- BE SAFE
Every kid is not a good fit for every activity, whether they are developmentally delayed or typical. My son on the spectrum is not an eloper, but there are some activities that are extremely difficult and anxiety provoking for him–and that makes him feel unsafe. My “normal” child is simply not as good at following rules as his autistic brother and considerations must be made there as well.
Now let’s talk about me! There are just some situations that are too pressure-filled for me to competently and calmly parent! And some types of people rattle me. These are not “safe” places for me to plan activities. And that’s OK. My level of calm is pivotal so I protect that. Kids feed off parents so do what you need to do to stay calm and in control.
- PERFECTION IS UNREALISTIC AND UNIMPORTANT
Kids perceive things differently–and I need to remind myself that my idea of perfection is not theirs. Case in point, we tried out a new mini putt course and it was really ramshackle–but a garter snake slithered out of hole 4 and it was a highlight of the summer for the boys! And our Pinterest projects are never the creative and beautiful experiences I imagine—usually the whole experience resembles a Frankenstein movie and I wish I would have let them just shoot NERF guns at the front window like they wanted to before my super persuasion skills got them interested in the craft.
- IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED…
Honestly, very few of our first times doing an activity go smoothly. But I am usually surprised to hear the kids speak really positively about the time together that I thought was a disappointment. This can be a major bummer if you’ve spent a lot of money on the activity (or a vacation). I can’t encourage you enough to keep trying and to keep things simple! With kids–especially kids on the spectrum, finding processes to smooth out an activity or vacation helps immensely–and you can’t know what processes will work by staying in the house.
As I’ve already mentioned, one of our processes is looking on a website for details (together), looking at maps, making an itinerary, being deliberate with expectations and building in check points/perks. My kids also like having “jobs” (My 6-year old always hands over money and the 4-year old always does the talking). And in really new activities, I try to find familiar touchpoints to ground them: saying please and thank you (which always gets a nice response), washing hands, stopping at drinking fountains (a huge treat for some reason), looking for bugs, a back scratch, noticing cute babies.
Get out there!