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How to Plan Successful Outings for Children on the Autism Spectrum

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We took our 3 1/2-year-old son to the North Pole! Well, not really, but he certainly thought we did! His current favorite movie is, “Polar Express.” A local train station puts on a holiday Polar Express themed event. It begins with a live action show inside the station, followed by a very entertaining train ride complete with singers, dancers, and the big man himself: Santa!

My son has ADHD and autism. As a result, outings for our family require a lot of planning and preparation. For a long time we didn’t go out often, and that wasn’t good for any of us. It’s important for our family to be able to enjoy events in our community, going out to dinner as a family and visiting parks and zoos. If you have a child with autism or ADHD and have had difficulty in the past with family outings, don’t give up! The following guidelines can help you and your child enjoy these special family moments again!

Before the Excursion

1. Plan ahead: Before we went to the Polar Express, I made sure to not only book tickets in advance, but to also call and ask questions. I wanted to know how far parking was from the event. The tickets said to be there an hour early. An hour for my child to wait is super difficult. I explained his struggles and they gave me a shorter arrival window. I also found out there would be a live action show during part of the wait, so then I knew he would be entertained for a portion of that time. Planning ahead means that you will be able to prevent some problems before they happen because you’ll be prepared and know what to expect.

2. Prepare your child: Since my son had watched the Polar Express movie multiple times recently, I knew he’d have interest in the event. If you are planning to take your child to the zoo, for example, spend the days leading up to the date watching zoo animals on television, playing with toy zoo animals, show them the zoo’s website, etc. The more prior knowledge they have, the more engaged they will be. I even sent a note to my son’s therapy center to ask them to help prepare him and they were happy to assist. You also may want to make what is called a “social story.” A social story is a written or visual guide used to help children on the spectrum understand new social settings, interactions, behaviors, etc. I make social story videos for my son.

3. Prepare yourself: Before I take my son out I make sure my phone is fully charged, I feel rested and I am dressed in a way that I can run after him on a short notice. I also make sure that anything I will need is packed ahead of time. Forgetting things can cause stress and taking my son out can already be stressful enough. You also need to be excited and positive about the outing. If you are dreading it and overly worried about how it will go, that negativity will impact the success. Our thoughts can often turn into our reality. Think positive and share your excitement with your child.

During the Excursion

1. Survey the environment: Where are the entrances, exits, bathrooms, etc? When we go out to eat we are careful to pick a booth over a table so my son can have more room to move around. We try to pick a booth that backs up to a wall so there is no one behind him he can disturb. When we went to the Polar Express I found a back exit from the train station into an empty back alley. I took my son there so he could run around freely while we waited for the show to start. Children on the spectrum can have pretty big reactions to over stimulation. Finding this empty and quiet back alley was a perfect break from the bright lights, large crowd and noise from inside the train station.

2. Bring favorite foods and diversions: My son has pretty significant food aversions and a very restricted diet. This is something we have struggled with for a long time. When we go out I always bring food I know he will eat over hoping a restaurant or theme park will have something he will eat. When we went on the Polar Express train it was between the hours of 6:30 pm and 8:00 pm and the drive there was over an hour. I knew he would miss dinner and there was no food being served, so I brought a thermos with his favorite mac and cheese and a cooler with his favorite juice. In addition to food, I also brought favorite toys, games, books, and electronics in case we needed them.

3. Have realistic expectations: I know I can’t expect my son to be able to handle an eight hour day at a theme park. It just wouldn’t be fair to put him through that. We have annual passes to Disney and typically go to the park either for a few hours in the morning before his nap or a few hours in the afternoon after his nap. I also know that he needs to have visual boundaries. If we go to a playground we need one that is fenced in. He is an eloper and no boundaries makes a trip to the playground just not safe. Our family loves to travel but for now, we’ve realized that two hour flights and a one hour time zone difference is about as far as we can push it for him to be successful. Know what your child’s limits are and work your family outings around that so your child can feel successful.

After the Excursion

1. What worked: After your excursion, celebrate what was successful! After our trip to the Polar Express, I was pleased that my son knew so much about the story and he was super engaged. I was also glad I had called ahead and explained my son was 3 1/2 with ADHD and autism. I asked if there were any accommodations and they told me I didn’t have to purchase a ticket for him and that he could sit between my husband and I rather than in a seat on his own with just one of us next to him. Having him sandwiched in between us helped so much! In our world, each small success adds up quickly!

2. What didn’t work: It is important to reflect back on what didn’t work so each excursion forward keeps getting better. I noticed a huge mistake I made planning our Polar Express excursion. By the time we decided to go, the tickets were mostly sold out and only available on a weekday between 6:30 pm and 8:00 pm. So after being in ABA therapy for six hours, having time for only a one hour nap, then a one hour drive to the Polar Express and the experience overlapping his usual dinner hour, I should have expected some frustration from my son. Although he did awesome for most of the entire experience, there was a 15 minute period that was super difficult, and understandably so. So moving forward, next time we do an outing it won’t be after a full day of therapy!

3. What’s important: Making memories and focusing on the positive. Regardless of what goes wrong and how hard it can be to orchestrate, your child needs to have these experiences with you. You are making memories. You are helping them learn how to navigate in social settings that may not be familiar to them and that is a great life skill. With enough planning ahead, you can create an experience that will be fun, memorable and positive for your child and your family. The director at my son’s ABA center said this the other day about taking my son on outings, “Maybe it will go great, maybe it will only be great 50 percent of the time, maybe it won’t go well at all, but still go!” How right he was.

“The best things in life are the people we love, the places we’ve gone, and the memories we’ve made along the way.” — Author Unknown

A version of this story originally appeared on Big Abilities.

Originally published: April 10, 2019
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