Therapeutic Recreation in Parks
How to Support Autistic Children in Recreation Programs
Including autistic children in community recreation programs encourages social interaction and provides an opportunity for the child to make friends with their non-autistic peers. Parents may find it a challenge to find programs, often because staff lack the training to support their child. Whether you are a parent or a recreation provider who wants to support an autistic child, know that it's possible to accommodate the child so they can have fun.
Before the program, meet with both the child and the parent(s).With the parent(s), discuss the child's strengths, interests, and barriers for participation. With the child, ask about what they want to achieve, and how you can make it more fun with them.
Find ways to accommodate the child's sensory needs.Sensory overload can lead to meltdowns (which happen when the child releases bottled-up stress in a fit of distress) or shutdowns (when the child becomes passive, pained, and unable to interact).
- What are the child's triggers?
- How can you minimize unnecessary noise and commotion?
- How can the child communicate with you if she is becoming overloaded or stressed?
- How can you tell if the child is going into overload?
Implement the support plan:
- Be consistent with techniques to motivate the child
- Gently encourage peer interactions (without pushing).
If need be, talk with the children.Depending on how severe various symptoms are, the autistic child's challenges may be very obvious. Some may be curious, and some may be mean to the child. Teach the children about autism, using a tone of acceptance and respect. You may want to discuss:
- How to politely invite people to play with them
- That everyone is different in their own ways, and that's okay (This applies to disability, and disability symptoms such as stimming and atypical communication, just as much as skin color or nationality)
- How to be polite and patient with others who are different
- That autism comes with strengths as well as struggles (memory, systematizing, special interests)
- That bullying is never acceptable, and to tell you right away if they see it happening
Intervene immediately if you see bullying.Autistic children may be targets for bullies, and they often don't know how to respond to it. It's important that you stop the bully right away and let them know that their actions are not acceptable.
- Don't force an autistic child to play with children who are bullying or being rude to them.
- If another child reports bullying to you, thank them for doing a good job telling you, and go over to intervene.
Don't try to force the child into compliance.Some aides don't understand how to handle an autistic child, so they decide to simply force them to do things because it's easy. However, this is damaging to the child's emotional development.
- Children should never be forced to do things against their will—disability is not an excuse for taking control of someone else's body.
- If you say no, tell them why. For example, "No, you can't put that in your mouth, because it's not food, and it's germy. If you need to put things in your mouth, why don't you use this lollipop instead?"
- Encourage them to speak up if they have a problem.
Talk with the child about how to take a break.Sensory overload, distress, or anxiety can cause overwhelming feelings and make participation difficult. When ignored, it can lead to an outburst. If they start feeling upset, they should know how to ask you for a break to calm down.
Talk with all support staff about the importance of kindness and patience.Autistic children face difficulties that neurotypical children do not, and when the child acts upset, they may be experiencing something you can't see. Responding with compassion will help them feel supported.
Video: Reducing Sensory Problems in Children with Autism
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