Many parents of children with autism run into barriers when taking their children out into the community. The park is one place where children typically enjoy their freedom and thrive, which can be a nice relief for many parents. Although, for parents of children with autism, this can be a stressful situation for many reasons. Children with autism may not have the social skills to play with other children and they may not interact in ways that are socially appropriate. Many children with autism also engage in observable self-stimulatory behaviors that may seem awkward to uninformed people. Other children may have difficulties with transitions and therefore, leaving the park is always a struggle for the parent of a child with autism, more so than that of a parent of a typically developing child.
Nevertheless, there are some strategies for parents of children with autism to practice to help relieve some of these stressors and make the park a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
First, if your child is not interested in other children but rather enjoys playing on or around the apparatus, be present if other children are around. Always be within a close distance so that any pushing or bumping can be easily and quickly dealt with. Attempt to block your child from running away and assist him with saying “sorry” or “hi” to the other child. Allow your child to leave and in a friendly manner, engage in a simple conversation with the other child such as “are you having fun at the park today?!” This way, the experience ends on a positive note instead of the memory of your child engaging in an aggressive behavior towards the other child.
Consider sparking interest in your child for other people, activities, toys, and conversations by pointing these out in his or her environment: “Wow, those kids are going down the slide really fast, that looks fun!” or “That boy has a really cool race car, maybe you can ask to see it?” These are minimally intrusive ways to promote engagement with surrounding people, objects, and activities. With repeated exposure and positive interactions with people and activities at the park, your child’s positive engagement at the park may be reinforced over time. In other words, it may get stronger, more frequent, and trips to the park can turn into something he looks forward to.
Second, if your child engages in many self-stimulatory behaviors and they are difficult to avoid at parks, go to parks during less crowded times so you can allow your child to have fun without having to always remind him about keeping his “hands down”. If you can only go during highly crowded times, be sure to be present with your child, prompting him to engage in appropriate activities at the park such as monkey bars, swings, and slides to decrease the chances of him engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors. Keep your child “busy” with these alternative, appropriate behaviors so that engaging in undesirable or self-stimulatory behaviors becomes incompatible. It is difficult for a child to engage in self-stimulatory behaviors when he or she is having fun climbing a monkey bar, going down a slide, or playing with shovels and buckets in the sand.
Last, if transitions are difficult, let your child know from the time of arrival how much time he or she will have at the park. Have a visual countdown (e.g., boxes that are crossed off every 5 minutes) until it is time to leave. If your child prefers electronics and timers, start a timer on a phone or electronic device instead. Provide reminders when time is almost up, so your child is not “surprised” when it is time to transition. When time is up, it helps to have something positive that your child can look forward to after the park (e.g., frozen yogurt, pick up brother, dinner, or treat in the car).
We hope that these strategies may help relieve some of the stress associated with going to parks and both you and your child can enjoy and have fun!