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 live in a great place (the Pacific Northwest) 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. At the end of this post, there’s a photo carousal of activities with both my sons in which someone said, “You did THAT with an autistic kid?! Or even with two kids under 6?” It’s not always easy, but so worth it.
And I’m also building a list with activities inside and outside the house that have been great for both my kids–stay tuned!
Here are the top things I keep in mind:
Sell the Idea
Charles, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s, 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, Charles has regulated his anxiety and become curious and more open to the new activity.
Balance Planning with Flexibility
Although life is much smoother with kids after doing away with diapers, strollers and naps it still pays for me to get a basic understanding of what I’m walking into with a new activity. So I check the website before going. 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 Charles be more flexible about participating in parts of activities that he has little interest in–having the heads up helps. 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).
Every kid is not a good fit for any 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!
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! 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 staying at home.
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” (Charles always hands over money and Otto always is the one who talks to people). 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!