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8 Tips to Promote Successful Community Outings with Your Child with Special Needs

 Sara Chapman, MA

Educational and DIR®/Floortime Consultant.

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Parents of children with special needs are often looking for extracurricular activities to participate in with their child outside of routine activities, such as home, school, and therapy.

The following are tips that will lead to more successful outings for both you and your child:

  1. Build outings around your child’s natural interests. Having a difficult time determining what interests your child? Observe. See what your child gravitates towards, what he or she seeks out. You’re child’s interests may not be geared towards typical child settings. Perhaps your child would enjoy a trip to the mall to ride escalators, watch plans take off and land, or play musical instruments. Capitalizing on what is motivating means your child will want to participate, therefore decreasing the potential for resistance.
  2. Visit the location prior to taking your child. Scoping out the place in advance allows you to better anticipate things that may cause difficulties or trigger uncomfortable responses for your child. Is the place too active or noisy? Will there be too many expectations, like waiting in lines, that might be hard on my child? If you have an idea of what to expect, then you’ll know how best to prepare yourself and your child (i.e. bring noise-canceling headphones to block out background noise, talk to your child about what to expect and strategies that can be used to support regulation, etc.).
  3. Keep realistic expectations and keep it simple. Think about where and when your child is most successful. For example, if your child has a limited attention span, particularly in group scenarios, avoid activities that require long periods of sitting or waiting (e.g. a visit to the library or a play.) If your child is active or most regulated by movement, chose activities such as indoor play gyms or local parks. Keep visits short and sweet initially and increase the time slowly to avoid over taxing your child.
  4. Use visuals to prepare your child. Take pictures during your “scoping out” mission. Create simple visual schedules to show your child what will happen and what to expect while talking about the experience with him or her. Introduce these tools initially when you are planning highly motivating activities and then you can begin to rely on them for less motivating activities, such as visits to the dentist or doctor. Remember to continue to use visuals even when your child is successful as anxiety can increase with even the slightest change in routine. Don’t take away something that is working!

There are several easy to use apps available on the iPhone or iPad that allow you to create schedules in a matter of minutes and on the go. Some to explore include: Choiceworks, First/ Then, iPrompts, and Routinely.

  1.  Build a tool kit of materials that are regulating for your child. Pack a bag of materials that are regulating for your child to keep with you during the outing (e.g. favorite books, toys, fidgets, sensory balls, chewy tubes, noise-canceling headphones or ear muffs, etc). You can also encourage your child to carry these in a backpack as a means of providing proprioceptive input (deep pressure to muscles and joints), which is generally calming and organizing. Pay attention to your child’s cues and use these tools as needed to support regulation.
  2.  Create a calendar to help your child anticipate outings or non-routine events. This can be a weekly or monthly calendar depending on your child’s understanding of time. For young children, a weekly calendar is often most appropriate.
  3.  Be prepared to leave when you need to and focus on success. The first few trips may include simply driving by and waving or simply walking only to the door and then home. Go at your child’s pace and build on his or her success. Provide plenty of warning when it’s time to leave (e.g. use visuals and 5, 3, and 1 minute warnings or longer if transitions are difficult.) For family outings, take two cars if siblings are involved, so one of you can leave if needed and siblings don’t miss our on an opportunity. This is particularly important for siblings so that he or she doesn’t have to miss out on an opportunity too.
  4.  Celebrate the small successes. Focus on creating positive emotional memories so that your child can begin to tolerate a range of experiences.


Fun Ideas for the Bay Area

Explore the zoo at your child’s pace or check out a petting zoo for a rich sensory   experience.

Check out indoor gyms, such as The Jungle, Pump It Up, or Bounz City. These are chains, so there should be one close to your area. This also provides an opportunity to build social interactions while your child participates in regulating movement-based activities.

Local parks and playgrounds provide great opportunities to support motor skills, motor planning, and natural social interactions. Visiting the same park will help you establish a routine with your child that will also lead to smoother transitions. Start by going to the park at a low impact time of day to reduce stimulation.

Take a short, simple hike. Children often enjoy being outdoors and walking can be regulating for children by allowing them to release extra energy. Allow your child to be the leader and guide which direction you take. You can also take simple walks around the neighborhood, such as walking to the mailbox. It often helps children to have a specific purpose or goal in mind, which can make the walk more organizing. Enjoy pausing to look at a bug or stone, or smell a flower your child notices.

Coyote Point is a fun place to visit in the San Mateo area and there is a large children’s playground there as well. Blackie’s Pasture is a favorite in Marin County, and any walk in Golden Gate Park is easily accessible.

Visit a children’s museum. Check local listing to see what exhibits may be of interest to your child and stick with those areas (e.g. a water exhibit if your child loves water play). Remember to go at low impact times and keep the visits short at first and increase the time slowly to ensure a positive experience.

Some local museums with hands-on exhibits include: Children’s Discovery Museum in San Jose, Bay Area Discovery Museum, The Tech Museum in San Jose, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco (the latter two will be better for older children).

The beach or a picnic. Take a blanket and some favorite snacks and toys to the beach or a park for a fun, simple family outing. In the summer, many Bay Area parks also have water fountains for water play that will provide an engaging activity for your child. Most children love water play!

Sensory-Friendly Films are another option, particularly for children who are interested in movies and television programs. These films are geared towards children with special needs and accommodations are made by the movie theater to support children with sensory challenges. Check online for theaters with special showtimes in your area!