Editor's Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month. To mark the month and bring awareness, we'll be offering posts each Wednesday in April from the Cary-based National Autism Network.
The effects of autism are not only felt by the individual with the disorder, but extend to their family as well.
Having a child on the autism spectrum can make even the most routine activity, such as grocery shopping, an unwanted adventure in social awkwardness. Autism is unique from other disabilities in that there are often no physical markings to differentiate a child with autism from his neuro-typical counterpart.
This can cause uninformed individuals to quickly judge the unpredictable actions of a child with autism. However, the expectations of the public should not prevent any individual with a disability and their family from living their day-to-day lives. Molli Young, a mother of a 11-year-old daughter on the autism spectrum, offers the following 5 tips for taking your child with autism into social and public settings without feeling judged by onlookers:
1. Dealing with other peoples’ reactions
Don't take it personally. If your child has a meltdown, then keep your focus on your child. It is not your responsibility to comfort and explain to other people what is going on. Most people are not reacting to your child's meltdown to be rude; they just don't understand what’s wrong or how to handle the situation. If you feel you need to say something, stick to the facts and don't get emotional. You can give them the definition of autism on a business card or simply state that my child has autism and I am doing my best to help him/her get used to outings at the store.
2. Talk about the outing ahead of time
Discuss where you are going. Talk about it as you are getting your child ready. Before you leave the house let them know they are going to the store, or wherever it may be. Talk about what will happen when you are there and what they can expect. If they respond, encourage them to talk about what they like about that particular place. Keep it as positive as you can.
3. Start out slow
Don't expect a child to be able to handle a long shopping trip and waiting in a line after being in a store for an hour. Start with a quick trip (about 5-10 minutes ). Go get one or two items or do a quick task. They need to get comfortable and familiar with the new environment. I like starting with shopping for an item they would want. I also like using the self-checkout because it can keep them busy. It may also help to go early in the morning when the shelves are fully stocked and there is a lot less noise and people.
4. Have a plan
Plan the outing and prepare. An example of this would be, when going to the grocery store, make a list. Separate it by departments according to the layout of the store. This helps so you don't have to go down any rows twice and you spend less time wandering, which is sometimes stressful for someone with autism because they aren't sure what to expect. Your plan should have a direct path from start to finish so there is no confusion.
5. Give your child a task
This keeps them busy. Make a picture board with Velcro. Pick two to five motivating items that you plan on purchasing and attach pictures with Velcro to the board. Try to keep their focus on the list while you are shopping. Praise the child when they find the items and put them in the cart (take the picture away when the item is found). Give lots of praise and make it a fun game. Hint: Try to put items located throughout a store so you can shop the whole store not just one row of it.
The National Autism Network offers a HIPAA secure social network and a variety of online resources for the autism community.