Picture this: It's a Friday evening and you walk into a large space full of loud, unfamiliar voices and strange smells. For some, this could be an everyday, run-of-the-mill outing to a local popular restaurant, but for a person with Autism, this could feel like a torture session.
Venturing out into the community with a typical child can be a lot of work, but take a special needs child out without the proper preparation, at the wrong time, to the wrong place, and you have all of the ingredients for a recipe for disaster. While community integration and social interaction are necessary for those with disabilities, let's face it: it can be a daunting task for parents, caregivers, and siblings. While going to the mall, a local eatery, or even the neighborhood playground with special needs child may never go 100% as planned, using the following tips will help you and the child feel more at ease.
1. The following tip may be difficult to accept, but not everyone that our children come into contact with will be knowledgeable and accepting of their disabilities and special quirks. With that being said, it is important to select a location for a family outing that is suitable for the occasion. An evening at a posh sushi bar may not provide the best experience. Choose a family restaurant like Friendly's or Famous Dave's. I have ventured to these restaurants myself with my brothers and the staff was more than willing to accommodate any special requests that we had regarding seating or meal preparation. They also understood the extra mess. Children are commonplace at establishments like these and the staff seem more willing to assist with any special accommodations.
2. You may be taking your child out to a restaurant, but they may not be particularly fond of anything there. Children with special needs and especially those with Autism have very particular palettes. Know your child and bring a fresh stash of snacks of your child's choice with you. Even if they choose not to eat anything on the menu, they get the opportunity to try different meals and experience the social aspect of a community outing.
3. It is important to remember that just as typical children grow and develop, children who have special needs will do the same. A crowded store might have once sent your child into a cringe-worthy tizzy but after a couple of months, the same environment might not even faze him or her. On the flip side, keep in mind, some things will simply not work. Just as we have certain fears and dislikes, so do they. It is fine to expose your child to new experiences, but never force them. Give your child credit for the progress that they have made, but understand and respect who they are at their core.
4. Sadly, in 2014 all of society is not up to speed on disabilities, Autism, and other communication disorders. Do not feel embarrassed about stares or mutters from strangers. They should feel ashamed that they are insensitive to children and people in general who have disorders. Children with special needs have just that: special needs.
Keep about 2-3 mini-goals in mind to work on once you are actually in the community. Has your child been learning money exchange? Set-up a mock store for them to practice this skill. If you think sitting still during a meal is going to be an issue, practice at home in short time intervals and build upon those practice sessions.
When In Doubt, Leave
5. So, your outing wasn't a success? It didn't work out exactly as you planned and your child is not as fond of the hamburgers as you expected--big deal! Leave. You can always try again at another time. You gave your child the opportunity to share experiences that average children take part in and there is always next time.