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How can I help my Autistic child adjust to social situation like going to the mall or a restaurant?

How can I help my Autistic child adjust to social situation like going to the mall or a restaurant?

Whilst a trip to the mall or a restaurant is a natural, everyday occurrence for the Neurotypical Person for the autistic person the overload of sights, smells, sounds and general busyness of the public place can be debilitating.

Few people have an understanding of what it may feel like for the Autist in these situations.  Sensory Processing Disorder means that most living on the spectrum do not have the filter they need to block out the overwhelming amount of outside stimuli found in a public place.

Helping your child adjust to these types of situation can take years and can mean that you will have to deal with many public meltdowns in the process.  But it is not entirely impossible. 

Here are my top 10 tips for helping your autistic child transition into a public setting:

  1. Timing is vital: A sick child, hungry child or tired child is not going to do well in a mall and the same applies to your Autistic child.  Time your visit well.  Make sure it fits into his/her day with easy and that is does not disrupt an important “scheduled” item – like lunch or play time. 
  2. Prepare for a public outing:  Social stories and visual cues can be particularly helpful.  Use them to explain to your child where you are going and what they can expect when they get there.
  3. Easy does it but do it often:  Start with small, short outings.  Don’t make the first outing you take to a restaurant one where you expect the child to be happy for hours but make sure you do it often.  A trip once or twice each week will soon become part of the child’s routine and something that they may even begin to look forward to.
  4. Role play:  This can be very effective.  Role-play going to the grocer, the restaurant or the mall.  Show your child a video and role-play the potential problems too.
  5. Comfort Items:  Most children on the spectrum have a comfort item or as some would say a “special interest”.  Take this item with you when you go to the shop.  A small toy or game can help distract the child during the outing.  IPads with a new app on works wonders.
  6. Sensory essentials:  If you know that your child is sound sensitive invest in a good set of noise cancelling headphones because this will help block out the most obvious triggers for your child.
  7. Involve the child:  Pushing the shopping cart or getting the child to put items into a basket are important and can also be a distraction for the child.
  8. Distraction techniques works wonders:  In some instances the only thing a parent can do is distract the child.  Have a few distraction items on standby.  This can be a favourite food item or treat or even a new toy.
  9. Strategize your exit:  No matter where you go make sure you are prepared to leave when a public crisis occurs.  If you stay calm and help your child during their meltdown they will learn to trust that you have their back.  Stop and help your child.  Don’t panic or try and force the situation on them because it is in-convenient for you. 
  10. Positive reinforcement:  Don’t forget to reward for good behaviour or a successful outing!  Help your child master the basic skills of shopping and reward them along the way with prizes or praise.  Currently Madison loves My Little Pony, which is always the last item we add to our shopping basket.  Keeping her ‘eye on the prize” has helped her transition into public spaces for longer periods of time.  (I have to add that sometimes we need to start with the “pony” just to keep her happy for the duration of the outing).

Be flexible mommy/daddy!  Enjoy the big and small milestone and know that whatever you are facing today will soon be a distant memory.

Amazing K is a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. We are a private autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 years. Our learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. We offer Individualized Education Programs involved, ABA, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum. Read more about this Johannesburg Autism school here.