For most children, field trips are exciting and fun. They get to visit interesting places, see new things and spend the day outside of the regular classroom. But for children with autism, field trips can spell disaster. They are loud, unpredictable, exhausting trips to an unfamiliar place. And most field trips start and end with a crowded, noisy bus trip that is, for many children with autism, an intolerable and seemingly unending ride.
The following are tips for parents to make field trips a little easier for your children with autism:
Talk to the teacher in the beginning of the year about what field trips he or she has planned for the upcoming year. While the exact trips may not yet be planned, teachers usually have a good idea of what trips they will take; often teachers take classes on the same trip, year after year, for example to an aquarium or zoo. Ask the teacher for an approximate date (or at least the month) and request as much advance notice as possible.
Once you have a specific date, mark it on your calendar at home. Keep your child apprised of when the trip is going to occur and how many days (or weeks if you have that much advance notice) are left until the trip.
Spend time with your child on the computer looking up the destination. Most museums, zoos and other public areas have websites, some with virtual tours. Have your child look through the pictures on the site and read about the destination. This will help him become familiar with it and feel more comfortable once he is there.
Work with the teacher to create a schedule for the day. Depending on your child, create a written or visual schedule for him to keep with him. He may feel more secure knowing what time the bus is leaving, how long they will spend at each activity, when lunch is, what time they will get back on the bus and what time they will arrive back at school. If you have additional details about the trip, include those as well.
Consider going on the field trip as a chaperone. Most schools ask for parent chaperones to attend field trips. It may be difficult, based on your work schedule, to attend every field trip. Enlist your spouse or a friend or relative that is familiar with your child to attend some of the trips so someone familiar is always around.
If your child has a difficult time coping with bus rides, consider driving your child and meeting his class at the destination. You can avoid starting the trip with the unpleasantness of the bus ride and, if you have your car, you can leave if it becomes overwhelming for your child. You can also go directly home once the field trip is over instead of having your child return to the school.
Pack your child’s lunch. Some trips include stopping for lunch at a restaurant. You may want to pack your child’s lunch anyway, making sure he has food he likes.
Use a social narrative for the day of the field trip. Create a story for what your child should expect to do and see on the field trip. Go over the social narrative for several days leading up to the trip.
Pack some items to help with sensory issues. Depending on where your child is going this might include headphones to block out noise, sunglasses, bug repellant or a hat.
Go over any special rules. For example, if your child is going to a museum discuss that "inside voices" should be used at all times. Other rules may include always staying with the group, no running, sitting in the seat during the bus ride.
Ask the teacher about lining up a "trip buddy." During field trips, classes are usually divided up into small groups. Talk to the teacher about which students would be understanding and helpful during the trip. If there are classmates who have been sensitive to your child’s needs, ask the teacher to include those students in the same group as your child.
When the field trip is over, be sure to give your child time to unwind from the overstimulation of the day. Provide a snack and time to interact with his favorite toys or activities to help him wind down. Once he feels back in control, talk about the trip. What did he enjoy? What did he find difficult to cope with? Use this information to help make the next field trip even better.
"Change is Good Supporting Students on the Autism Spectrum When Introducing Novelty," Date Unknown, Kara Hume, Indiana Institute on Disability and Community
"How to Have Great Field Trips with an Autistic Student," 2013, July, Paula, Almaden Valley Speech Therapy Blog
"Structuring Field Trips for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Kansas State Department of Education
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.