Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

NOTE: Our summer camp experience has been with Boy Scouts of America.  Many of these tips could also apply to autistic youth in other scouting groups, such as Girl Scouts, American Heritage Girls or Trail Life USA.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

Those with autism often need special assistance to get ready for a week of Scout camp.  In this article you will learn about the important autism preparations for Scout camp.

 

I did my best to help my autistic daughter prepare for her first scout camp experience. We used the BSA Scouts packing list.  We asked questions about the camp.  We relied on my Scoutmaster husband for advice.

 

It was only a few months since our inaugural troop for girls was founded in the newly structured Scouts BSA (formerly known as Boy Scouts).  So, we didn’t have much preparation for attending camp besides learning some basic first aid skills and discussing what we should pack.

 

Luckily, we have two Scout leaders who have prepared their own sons for Scout camp for many years.  It was a blessing that they knew their way around camp, the daily schedule, and merit badge requirements.

 

My autistic son did very well at camp as a Scout and now works there in the kitchen. I was reassured that my autistic daughter would be fine.  Since she has different challenges, I thought it best to take extra measures to help her and the staff know the accommodations she needs.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout Camp

The first thing a Scout learns is the motto: “Be Prepared”.  That’s exactly the mentality required for a week at summer camp.

 

Here are important autism preparations for Scout camp:

 

Before Camp

 

Choose activities your youth is familiar and/or has a very keen interest in doing (STEM, Scoutcraft, aquatics, shooting sports, etc.). When engaged in an activity for which he or she has a passion or skill, this will alleviate some concerns about being in a new and strange environment.  My daughter is very familiar with archery and chose to do that with the other girls in the troop.  She ended up with the highest score in the class, of which she is extremely proud.  She will now associate summer camp as a fun and positive experience and want to go again next year.

 

Consider staying at least one night (preferably the first) with your child. This is especially important for the first year of attending summer camp. I was able to figure out with what exactly my daughter needed help and to guide her to different activity locations.  If your child has never been away from home for an overnight, then I encourage you to stay during the week. If you can’t sleep overnight, ask about Day passes so you can check in a time or two during the week.

 

Prepare an “Accommodations Card”.  I created a short list of accommodations for my daughter so camp staff could communicate with her and meet her needs appropriately. I laminated the printed cards and handed them out to each person with whom she had regular contact.  They were grateful to know to best help when she was frustrated.

Here is a template I made—you can alter it to fit your child’s needs:  Scout-Camp-Accommodations-TEMPLATE.pdf (64 downloads)

 

Let troop leaders know how your child handles frustration. Help them know the difference between an anxiety attack, a meltdown and willful disobedience.  Create a “meltdown plan” (for safety reasons for self and others) for troop leaders—write it down on a card and laminate.   If you will not be with your child at camp, establish a communication plan. For example, many camps have very limited WiFi service. Ask troop leaders when and by what method is best to communicate if there is an issue at camp.

 

Create a picture schedule and/or social story of the camp routines. Get the camp map and your child’s scheduled activities the week before.  Go over this routine a few times with your child before leaving for camp.

 

Complete the merit badge worksheets for the activities your child will actually do at camp.  It will be helpful to do these at least a week or two before camp. That way he/she can recall the information that is heard in the class itself and be able to answer some of the questions. If a class is heavy lecture (like First Aid), bring along a tape recorder; have a notepad to take notes (ask a peer to take notes is he/she can’t); or perhaps follow along in the Scout book.

 

Autism Preparations for Scout CampGet ready for the swim test!  For any aquatic activity, every scout needs to perform a swim test.  Even if he/she has achieved “Blue Swimmer” status already, the camp requires each camper and adult leader to demonstrate proficiency—every year!  This is where your child may have issues.  I strongly urge you to practice the stroke and lap requirements in a lake before camp.  (If going to a lake is out of the question, practice in a pool.) If your child is too overwhelmed with swimming in a lake and refuses to perform the swim test, then she/he cannot do any of the aquatic merit badges (kayaking, canoeing, etc.).  If that’s the case, another merit badge or open activity can be chosen. Create a social story about what it’s like and what to do for the swim-test.

 

Make sure the shoes and boots your child wears are very comfortable.  Wear them in before going (especially try to hike in them over rough terrain for at least an hour).  Have back-up shoes that are waterproof.  Water-shoes are fine to walk around in, but if it’s raining all day, your feet will stay pruny ALL DAY.  Not good.

 

Did I mention there is LOTS of walking at camp?  I mean, miles per day!  And with a semi-heavy day bag on your child’s back all day.  If you can prepare with a few hiking excursions or walking exercise, the better off.  Bring electrolyte drinks and water to prevent leg cramps and dehydration.

 

Make the camp aware of any medical, dietary or sensory issues on the application. When you get there, alert the kitchen staff to food intolerances. Reserve an appointment with a physician as soon as your child is registered for camp.  Be sure to pack the necessary medications and sensory items.  If your child needs medicine for anxiety, ask if the troop leader can keep and administer those meds right in camp instead of at the nurse’s station. If you keep food at the camp, be sure to seal it up tight!  The mice had a feeding frenzy on our snack food while we slept.

 

Don’t forget a sensory kit!  If your child has ANY sensitivity to noise, bring those noise-cancelling headphones!  The loudest setting was the dining hall.  These staffers love to pump up the volume with their songs and skits and table-thumping. It gets everyone enthused but the noise—even for me—was almost unbearable.  Bring any other sensory-calming item if necessary (like a weighted blanket for nighttime sleeping).

 

 

During Camp

 

Have a designated peer helper (“buddy”) who is kind and conscientious. If they are in the same merit badge classes together, have them walk to and from those class together.  They can even share a tent and help your child get a day-bag ready. Ask one of the scout leaders to assist in getting your child to a class if no one else in their troop goes.

 

 

Walk through the camp areas on the day of arrival with all scouts. Follow the route the week’s schedule, starting with the first activity, then the second, etc.  Have your child follow along with the picture schedule and map you made beforehand.

 

Help your child prepare a day-bag.  Create a picture schedule of all items that should go into it. Your child should have a small first aid kit, notetaking pads and pencil, swim gear, sunscreen, bug spray, a flashlight, and possibly merit badge worksheets to work on while at camp. Ask your scoutmaster or assistant to help check the day-bag every day to make sure all necessary items are included.

 

Show the Accommodations cards to every activity counselor.  Explain to them how your child may react to unfamiliar requests, events or settings (no prior approval needed). Have a troop leader do this if you cannot.

 

Some challenges we encountered

 

With the rain and thunder they moved the kayaking class to the indoor dining hall. My daughter did fine with the transition.

 

When the sun came out, our leader suggested doing the swim tests at the lake. My daughter has been lake swimming before but freaked her out because she wasn’t expecting a test.  It took her 30 minutes to put her suit on and come down to the beach. She needed time to transition and accept this inevitability.  After much persuasion she managed to get in the water and achieve “blue swimmer” in order to complete her kayaking merit badge.

 

Hence, this is the reason I stress practicing the swim test in a lake or making a social story before coming to camp!

 

Another problem was her boots.  While she never complained about them at home, she never had to walk in them for several miles, either!  By the end of the first day, I was trading boots with her because she had blisters forming.

 

I highly recommend doing some preliminary hiking or walking in camp boots or waterproof shoes at home before wearing them at camp.  Or bring along enough extra shoes that are comfortable.

 

 

Some positive highlights

 

My daughter loved the Pioneer Rendezvous.  It was an after-dinner event with Native American flute playing (which my daughter got to try), kettle corn and root beer, leather-making and iron-branding, rifle demonstrations, atlatl throwing and just enjoying the company of others.

 

Take advantage of the optional fun activities in the evening. This will make the homesickness less and the willingness to stick it out at camp stronger.

 

I am very pleased that this camp goes above-and-beyond to make an unforgettable experience.  Honestly, I wished—momentarily—that I was young again.  I suppose I’ll settle for being an Assistant Scoutmaster…

 

The staffers were not only extremely accommodating but inclusive of my daughter.  They welcome all kids with open-arms and are excited to have them be in Scouts…which is why I believe Scouts is so fantastic for youth on the spectrum.

 

Keep in mind that those with autism need special preparation for the Scout camp experience.  With the right mindset and preparation, a Scout camp experience will not only be loads of fun but will help your autistic youth grow in self-confidence and self-reliance.

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

SENSORY TIPS FOR A ZOO VISIT

 

Does your child love animals but you are unsure about taking him or her to the zoo?  In this article you will find important sensory trips for a zoo visit that will be hopefully help you and your whole family have fun there!

 

My autistic kids have always loved animals. Farm animals. Zoo animals. Neighborhood animals.  Zoos are naturally attractive to young kids and more so for those kids who have an intense fascination with animals.  But it’s very important to consider the impact of the all the noises, sights, smells, and sounds of the zoo on a child with autism.

 

 

AREN’T ANIMALS THE BEST?

 

They are loyal and love on us. They ease our fears and keep us grounded. They connect with us despite the communication gap.

 

Many autistic individuals find comfort in the presence of animals. Whether it’s a pet at home, livestock on a farm, or a service-dog, animals bring amazing benefits to the lives of those who often feel frustrated by a lack of understanding from other humans.

 

So, visiting a zoo seems like the most natural place to go for an autistic child, teen or adult.

 

Except that not all zoos are created equal.

 

Just because a zoo has animals doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to be a great experience.  Other people will be there, too…LOTS of people!  The potential for sensory overload can be high, depending on the level of crowds and the type of sensory environment zoo architects have designed.

 

To date (summer 2019), only three zoos in the entire country are certified autism centers.  Several may be “autism friendly” by having some sensory kits available or special “autism awareness” days.

 

Our nearby zoo is not deemed a “certified autism center”. In fact, the Indianapolis Zoo had ZERO assistance for anyone with sensory-cognitive issues. No sensory guidelines, no sensory kits, no calming room, no wait-assistance…nothing.  Even one staff member expressed her concern about having to leave the zoo early because her autistic nephews were having sensory meltdowns. (Sounded like my kids’ first zoo trip!)  Needless to say, I was disappointed with their lack of autism accommodations.

 

Even so, we still made up our minds to go.

 

And that is exactly what most autism families do.  Despite a lack of accommodations, they will still visit their favorite places!

 

My autistic daughter and I visited the Indianapolis Zoo on a day that was dry and sunny with low-crowd level predicted.  We ended up having a fantastic time.

 

However, the last time we went—when my kids were toddlers—the trip to the zoo was just about a disaster.

 

Through lessons of my past and most recent trips, I hope to provide some guidelines that will ensure a more fun and worthwhile trip to the zoo.

I will also provide tips to empower you to advocate for your autistic loved one.

 

SENSORY TIPS TO CONSIDER BEFORE MAKING A ZOO VISIT

 

You have picked the date.  A zoo trip is now in the works!

 

Before you think about “winging” a visit to a zoo, consider all potential scenarios during your time there.  In other words, at what point will you and your autistic loved one be tired? Hungry? How will a sensory-overload episode be handled? What happens if you lose sight of your loved one?  Here are some sensory tips for a zoo visit:

 

1. First check the zoo website for accommodation information.

Is the zoo you are visiting at least “autism friendly”?  The Indianapolis Zoo website had no link or any mention at all of having accommodations for those on the spectrum. They did host an autism awareness day with a local agency.  (But one day is clearly not enough).  You may need to call the zoo directly if they have anything at all to assist those with autism. Knowing this will determine next steps to prepare.

 

2. Decide how much time and money you will spend at the zoo.

To save some money, I recommend you buy tickets in advance, which are often cheaper.  There may be some coupons at given times, but no deep discounts were available by having the Medicaid-based Access Pass. We entered the parking lot 15 minutes before opening.  No parking lot attendant was at the booth to take the parking fee, so we saved money by getting there early.  Other questions to ask yourself: How tired does your autistic child get walking around for several hours?  How often do you eat?  Are you wanting to save money and bring your own food in?

 

3. Download the zoo map.

You may want to study the amenities, exhibits and other accommodations in order to plan out a visit-strategy. What are your child’s favorite animals? If he or she loves giraffes, then don’t miss out on the feeding opportunities. Often this requires a separate ticket and designated feeding times at most zoos (including the Indianapolis Zoo).  Is he or she crazy about dolphins? Don’t forget to get a separate free ticket at the entrance for the show. Plan your visit around those important feeding or show times.

 

4. Figure out if it’s worth spending extra for the attractions.

Most zoo admissions include some limited animal interaction and shows.  But they don’t include rides and other things like animal feedings.  Indianapolis Zoo has the TAP (Total Adventure Package), which is an extra $12. We found it worth purchasing it in advance.  Instead of buying one-time-access tickets we had a wristband. It allowed us unlimited access to those extras, so we could go on rides again and again. We got more than our money’s worth out of it!

 

5. Research or inquire about the dietary offerings at the zoo.

Most snacks, I noticed, were not gluten-free or casein-free. If your child is not a big salad-eater, then perhaps consider bringing in your own snacks and meals.

 

6. Pack a sensory kit.

Some zoos may have sensory kits to offer families. But a safe bet is to assume they don’t. I highly recommend headphones for those with sound-sensitivities.  It was at the dolphin show years ago that we realized our autistic son’s limits to loud music and noise. He had a complete meltdown during the show, so we left early.

 

7. Bring someone along to assist.

If you have more than one autistic child and/or a child that is a toddler, preschooler or elementary-age, it may be helpful to have an extra pair of hands. Having a 1-to-1 ratio is best. My kids are almost adults, so that ratio is not necessary. Having another responsible adult is beneficial for other reasons (which I’ll get into later in this article).

 

8. Check the weather forecast.

Plan your trip accordingly.  How much cold or heat can your child tolerate?  What about rain?  Most zoos I know have the majority of their exhibits outdoors. The Indianapolis Zoo has two large indoor areas—Oceans and Orangutan Center—but would be crowded during a rainstorm.  Also, animals tend to be more active on cooler days and early in the morning, especially because zookeepers are feeding them.  The park is also less crowded then.

 

            

 

SENSORY TIPS DURING YOUR ZOO VISIT

 

Finally…a perfect day to visit the zoo has come! You feel prepared enough, maybe pre-purchased tickets.  Here are some sensory tips for a visit to the Indianapolis Zoo—although many other zoos have similar exhibits which you may find relevant.

 

1. Animal experiences…

Besides passively viewing the animals you can also actively interact with them in a more meaningful way.  The experiences vary in intensity.

Calming:

  • Petting a shark. No, REALLY! The Indianapolis Zoo has very large shallow shark touch pool in an indoor atmosphere that is very peaceful. It’s relaxing watching their graceful movements in water. The Oceans exhibits are by far the most calming.

 

  • Animals in the Plains and Forest areas—elephants, bears, giraffes and tigers—are slow-moving but fascinating to watch.

 

  • The orangutans are altogether special, often leaning their heads against the windows for a very up-close-and-personal encounter.

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits    

 

Intense:

  • Feeding the lorikeets. This was our favorite animal encounter, so much we did it twice. Using our TAP access we fed them a liquid solution out of a little cup, which they licked.  One moved up my daughter’s arm to top of her safari hat in search of food.  We couldn’t stop smiling and laughing!  On the other hand, they can be very loud, especially when they perch on your shoulder and chirp right in your ear!

 

  • We also hand-fed a giraffe and flamingoes.

 

  • In terms of animal observations, the most active were the lemurs. They proved to be very amusing to watch, thwarting the zookeeper’s efforts to corral them back inside by constantly escaping.

 

  • The dog show was lively. There was enough space for seating and it was shaded. It was hard to discern what the presenters were saying with loud music playing in the background.  (Headphones recommended)

 

  • The dolphin show, while very enjoyable, was perhaps the most intense experience with music that was a bit loud and very crowded with spectators. (Headphones recommended)

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits        

 

2.  Rides…

Slow-moving rides—like gondola systems and boat rides—tend to be relaxing experiences. Train rides can be both relaxing and intense at the same time. The greatest difficulty would be waiting in lines.

Calming:

  • The Skyline is the most relaxing, as long as everyone in the party can handle gliding 50 feet in the air. Although it was intended to observe the orangutans swing from massive heights, we didn’t see any outside. It is mostly to be enjoyed as a slow-moving ride above the zoo and skyline of downtown Indianapolis.

 

  • The train was relaxing but a bit more intense. A voice on a loudspeaker provided a “backstage tour” of the zoo. Sit in the back of the train to avoid the loud whistle in the front.

 

  • Compared to those at amusement parks, the Kombo Coaster would be considered a “kiddie coaster” (so not THAT intense). There were no lines for the ride during the entire time of our visit. So, if your child is a sensory-seeker and meets the height requirement, this would be a perfect attraction to ride again and again with the TAP.

 

  • The carousel appeared to be more intense than calming, considering it was placed in a more visible place in the zoo with higher crowds. (We did not ride this attraction, so I cannot comment on the volume of the music.)

 

 

ADVOCATE FOR YOUR LOVED ONE’S SENSORY NEEDS

 

If the zoo you visit has NO special accommodations for those with cognitive-sensory needs, then you’ll have to advocate for your autistic child or other family member.

Here are some suggestions that might work for you:

 

1. Consider having someone to be a “line placeholder” if necessary.

The Indianapolis Zoo does not have a “wait outside the line” accommodations. We waited 40 minutes for both the train and Skyliner rides.  That may be entirely too long for some on the spectrum.  Some zoos might have line accommodations—check in advance.  I suggest you let someone at the ticket booth know you will have a placeholder in line (that extra person you bring along) while you wait nearby with your child.  Or…you could always ask a stranger if they can hold your place.  (Never hurts to ask.). Ask guest services at the zoo entrance what they can do to help you.

 

2. Create a small laminated card that explains your autistic child’s needs and maybe how they can help.

Sometimes it’s necessary to convey your needs in a non-verbal way with staff.

 

3. Make staff aware if your child is a “runner”.

If your child has a lack of personal safety and runs off, be sure to alert zoo staff at guest services as well as at each exhibit. They usually have personal radios to communicate with one another in the event your child goes missing. Have your child wear identification with your phone number.

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit       

 

PRECIOUS MEMORIES MADE AT THE ZOO

 

Some zoos have a very spacious feel and are better designed to handle more crowds, especially if they have very wide walking paths. The Indianapolis Zoo is one such place that can accommodate many people without making you feel claustrophobic.

 

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, while one of my favorites, has very narrow walking paths which can create bottlenecks and tight spaces. Recognize your child’s ability to handle crowds. Watch videos of the zoo you want to see to get a better sense of space.  This may affect your choice in which zoo you do end up visiting.

 

Zoos can be both peaceful and thrilling experiences all at once.  Sensory-seekers love the hands-on interactions with the animals and the rides, while sensory-avoiders can just observe them play.  Just be sure to do your research before you go.  And if your autistic loved one has had enough, try again another time.

 

Our family has continued to go to a zoo year-after-year despite meltdowns. Every trip to has been better than the one before it. I loved watching their progress on outings like this.

 

It takes time to become acclimated after recognizing how your autistic loved one reacts to the sensory environment of a zoo.  I encourage you to just appreciate the smiles and joy felt by your kids watching and playing with their favorite animals!

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

 

Consider planning a weekend getaway to Indianapolis. Check out my article on making the most of a trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum! 

Safety Tips for Hocking Hills

Safety Tips for Hocking Hills

NOTE:  These are safety tips for Hocking Hills. They may apply to any state or national park that has a similar terrain and accessibility. 

 

Old Man Cave of Hocking Hills

 

Otherworldly.  Awe-inspiring.  Therapeutic.

 

Words like these cannot even begin to describe the scene that awaited our initial discovery of Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio.  Given the rocky terrain of the park, however, some parents might be worried their autistic child may not be able to handle the paths. I hope to reassure you by providing safety tips for exploring Hocking Hills and other parks like it.

 

Located southeast of Columbus, Ohio, this mind-blowing, beautiful place has attracted visitors from all over.  Southern Ohio is a lot like southern Indiana and Kentucky…gentle-rolling hills with caves and deep ravines carved out by waterfalls.

 

But Hocking Hills is totally unique.  Because its gorges are so deep, it hosts plant and animal species only seen in Canada or the Pacific Northwest.  Giant hemlock trees dominate the landscape while Canadian warblers make their home here. On the upper rims you’ll find typical Midwest oak and hickory trees.

 

Stair rails for safe guiding

We felt transported to particular movie settings. To me, we stepped into the “Star Wars” forest moon of Endor where the Ewoks lived. My son said it looked like Pandora from “Avatar”, since the giant rock outcroppings appeared to be “floating”. My daughter simply said it was “nature’s Disney World”.Otherwordly rock outcroppings at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is a sensory treat:  stunning scenery; soothing sounds; and a plethora of tactile experiences.

 

That said, there are some very critical safety challenges while exploring Hocking Hills.

 

Autism families need to take special care to prepare themselves and their children for hiking the breathtaking, but rugged, terrain.

 

Amazing forest beauty at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is a hiking park with many trails.  You will need to be able to walk, climb stairs and maneuver over rocks and tree limbs.  You will also need to have a fairly good sense of personal safety.

 

Here are safety tips for Hocking Hills to help you navigate and overcome these challenges:

 

1. Very Limited or NO WiFi

The benefit is that you get to completely unplug from the outside world. You are truly escaping from reality. The problem is that you cannot communicate with one another if you split up, contact people back home, or (in the event of an accident on a trail) call up an ambulance if you don’t have good cell phone coverage. I called park staff about this issue: Sprint has some spotty coverage and sometimes you can get signal at the town or tops of ridges. I have AT&T and had no coverage anywhere.  Park rangers are around but we didn’t see any during our visit.

TIPS:

  • I suggest that the entire party stays together while hiking the trails. Have a designated “runner” to get back to the car quickly in order to get help.

 

  • Determine a “meeting place and time” if your party gets split up; wear watches so everyone is in sync.

 

  • Bring a few park maps in case you get lost. Don’t leave your phone in the car—bring it along as it has a GPS function to help locate your position even without wifi.

 

2. Weather Forecast

If you can, find out the weather for the day. (See if your lodging accommodation has its own WiFi or DirectTV access.)  Hill top during a thunderstormA hot sunny day will not be a burden if you hike in the deep gorges. Temperatures drop at least 10-15 degrees here and shade is abundant.  Weather is very unpredictable in the summer months.

We got caught in a thunderstorm on top of the ridge.  Standing in puddles of water in a high location was not good idea, so we walked back. Our trail turned into a raging stream, so we had to be extremely cautious where we stepped. People below on the gorge trail witnessed massive trees and rocks falling after being uprooted by the heavy downpours. Water always falls to its lowest point, so the water can rise extremely fast along the lower trails.  (See the “before and after” photos of Conkle’s Hollow below.)

 

Before the rain…

Dry path before the rains

 

After the rain…

After the heavy rains

 

TIPS:Bad weather moving in

  • Download the AccuWeather app. Access the latest forecast online with a good signal. Then, when you don’t have wifi, you can still see the weather offline (for up to 15 without signal).

 

  • If you hike in the rain, be sure to be on the lookout for rising waters. If there is a chance of storms or you hear distant rumbles of thunder, I strongly urge that you do NOT hike the trails!

 

3. Equipment Essentials

Some trails are long and have treacherous terrain. The right shoes are critical. Depending on how you want to spend your time on the trails, you’ll need to pack for a variety of needs: hunger, thirst, first aid, and capturing those moments for your memories. We put the first aid kit to good use after my nephew (with SPD and ADHD) scraped his knee up climbing the rock stairs.

TIPS:

  • Wear shoes that have thick tread and won’t fall off. Do NOT wear flip-flops or Crocs without an ankle strap! Some gym-shoes are not appropriate as they can be slick on muddy, wet stone-stairs. I felt very safe wearing water shoes—never slipped at all.

 

  • Bring a lightweight backpack big enough to carry what you need. Include snacks and plenty of water.

 

  • Bring small sensory items your child may need in case the hike is overwhelming.

 

  • Bring a good poncho and maybe a wide-brimmed rain hat on overcast days and if you anticipate the possibility of rain.

 

  • And most importantly, don’t forget a small first aid kit with alcohol wipes, band-aids, gauze and bandage tape.

 

4. Pet friendly trails

Many people brought their dogs with them, little or large.  They were all on leashes. Most seemed incredibly friendly.  Still, it’s best to prepare for encountering a stranger’s pet.  The only trail that does not allow dogs is Conkle’s Hollow.

TIPS:

  • Know how your autistic child reacts around dogs. Is he or she incredibly scared or intensely fascinated with other people’s dogs? Create a social story that teach him/her the appropriate behavior about being around strange dogs, if necessary.

 

5. Accessibility & Body-Spatial Awareness

If I haven’t drilled in the idea enough, I’ll say it again: Hocking Hills has rough terrain.  There are only two trails that are flat and paved: Ash Cave and Conkle’s Hollow Gorge Trail.  They provide terrific access for wheelchair users to view the scenery in the gorges. BUT…they only go so far.  A large boulder is blocking a good portion of the view of the waterfall at Ash Cave, and it’s impossible to see the end of the trail at Conkle’s Hollow as the paved trail turns rugged. Many areas of the trails have no rails to protect you from falling off a steep cliff.  If you are taking a younger child or one who has bodily coordination issues, be extra careful in taking them through these trails.

 

Beware of time-worn stone steps

 

TIPS:

  • Download the Trails Maps before you go! Study them and decide which ones are best for your family. For each trail they indicate the number of stair-steps, how many miles, and how dangerous. You can also pick up a trail map at the Welcome Center.

 

  • If your child has never been hiking in natural parks before, has not developed a sense of personal safety, or has poorer balance or coordination, start with some of the paved lower gorge trails previously mentioned.  The short distance to the falls on rugged terrain would be good practice for learning how to navigate over rougher paths.

 

  • If your child is very coordinated on unpredictable pathways, obeys safety commands, and understands what to do around dangerous areas, then feel free to hike the rim or overlook trails where you can enjoy gorgeous, birds-eye views of the park. Old Man’s Cave trail is a terrific hiking experience with incredible natural and man-made structures.

 

Handicapped accessible path

 

If you live in the Midwest but can’t get out to visit the Northwest Cascades any time soon, then come explore Hocking Hills.  Consider staying at least three days to fully explore what it has to offer.

 

Simple pleasures to be found at Hocking Hills       Awe-struck wonders of Hocking Hills

Safely guiding on the path

Before you arrive…

 

I recommend you visit the Ohio DNR site for Hocking Hills. Here you will find photos of some of the park sites.  Explore YouTube for videos of the trails. All Ohio State Parks are free to visitors, by the way…

 

For a more complete vacation planning resource (including lodging and other activities besides hiking), visit the official Hocking Hills tourism website.

 

When you arrive….

 

To begin your hiking adventures, be sure to stop by the Welcome Center first. Speak with a park ranger or staff more familiar with the park trails for specific guidance and recommendations.

 

Hopefully I have addressed the most critical safety considerations for which autistic individuals and families prepare.

 

       Trail waterfall       Dark path ahead       Architectural wonders

 

To be continued…

 

Now, let’s move on to the therapeutic benefits to be discovered at Hocking Hills!  Click the link to access the article: An Autism Guide to Exploring Hocking Hills State Park (Part 2): “Nature Therapy”

 

 

 

 

 

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World

I dare you to ride the Voyage!

Thinking of trying out an amusement park with your autistic child?

 

Consider Holiday World in southern Indiana. It’s the perfect family getaway, even for special needs families. Discover the accommodations available in this autism guide to Holiday World.

 

Some of the best things are in the middle of nowhere…literally.

 

Rising out of the hills of southern Indiana in the small village of Santa Claus (yes, THAT “Santa Claus”) stand gravity-defying giant steel and wooden structures.

 

Roller coasters, to be exact.

 

Like the Griswold family making a pilgrimage to their beloved Wally World in the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, many residents of the surrounding Midwest states make the annual journey to Holiday World.

Meet Santa in the summer!

 

But it’s not just the roller coasters that draw them.  Holiday World is family-owned and designed specifically for the whole family in mind, including very small children.

 

Its whimsical holiday-themed lands celebrate Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. It’s probably the only place in the world that kids can greet Santa Claus outside of the Christmas season.  It’s a mix of old-fashioned carnival rides, world-renowned roller coasters, and one big water park—Splashin’ Safari.

 

We usually come to Holiday World in May before Memorial Day, so even on a Saturday the lines for the rides were not too long. For this reason, we never considered getting a “Ride Boarding Pass” before. But I wanted to conduct a bit of research into how it was used and whether it was truly helpful for those on the autism spectrum.

 

Holiday World is an “autism friendly” amusement park.  By my experience, hopefully you can gain some valuable insight into planning your own visit to Holiday World with your autism family.

 

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World Accommodations

 

Before I even left the house, I made sure to dig into their accommodations policy.  Considering that they have a “Calming Room” and a “Ride Boarding Pass” for those who cannot wait in long lines, I would personally designate this park as “autism friendly”.  I wanted to test that out when I arrived.

 

We got there early considering we live in Eastern Standard Time and Holiday World is in Central Standard Time.  They allow people into the parks 30 minutes before they “rope drop” the area to the main attractions. The kiddie rides near the entrance were actually running before official opening.

 

Past the ticket takers to the left is “Holiday World Services” where you can ask for the “ride boarding pass” and any other accommodation needed.  We did not have to present any evidence of diagnosis.  They were very eager to accommodate and explained how it was used.

Special needs boarding pass for attractions    Special needs accommodation pass   Boarding pass instructions and procedures

 

The purpose of the “ride boarding pass” is to assist guests in wheelchairs who cannot move through the queue or those who cannot wait in a typical line. No more than 4 people in the party can use this accommodation.  Guests must use the exit to access the attraction. You can only get one return-time at any given time. We were told we would either (a) be let on the ride immediately or (b) be given a return time.

 

For our first ride we were neither allowed immediate access nor given a return time. It took about 5 minutes for staff to acknowledge us and then another 20 minutes—standing in the hot sun—before we were permitted to ride. My autistic teens were upset with this arrangement. My son was embarrassed that we were not walking through the standard queue.  Fortunately, they gave us our first choice of seating after they apologized profusely.

 

I got the sense that the “boarding pass” was mostly originally designed for those with physical disabilities whose wheelchairs cannot move through the queues.  I don’t know if they really accommodate those with strictly sensory-cognitive issues.   I would have been happy to have been promptly acknowledged and then given a return time to come back later.

 

After that ride my kids were adamant that we stand in a regular line like everyone else. It turned out to be a 45-minute wait.  Oh well…at least we were in the shade.

 

Unfortunately, Holiday World does not have signs indicating how long wait times are for each attraction.  It also does not have signs indicating which rides accommodate those with autism or other disabilities and where to go (like Disney parks do).  With the “ride boarding pass” handy, however, you know exactly which attractions allow return-times.

 

Your autism guide to a fun-filled family adventure

 

1. Know your child’s time-limit for waiting.

If your child can wait up to 30 minutes or more then you will be fine without needing to use the “ride boarding pass”. If it’s less, be sure to grab it from Services.

 

2. Ask for a return time right away.

When you use the boarding pass, be sure to ask the ride attendant immediately and politely whether you can go right away or need a return time. Just standing there hoping they see you may not work in your favor. Flag them down if necessary.

 

3. Assess the wait time by observing the pace of lines.

When you get to the ride, take a few minutes to observe the speed of the queue. See how many ride operators are attending guests. The Scarecrow Scrambler did not seem to have a long queue, but it was moving very slowly with only one attendant.  Many rides seem to only have one attendant, in fact.  Be sure to ask for a return time for attractions with slow moving or long queues and with only one attendant.

 

4.  Take advantage of conveyor-type attractions.

Rides that are on conveyor systems and/or hold more people in the vehicle (roller/water coasters, water rides, dark rides, etc.) tend to have faster queues than those that can only get a small group of people on at one time. You may not need to use the “ride boarding pass”. On the other hand, be aware that lines for certain seats on the roller coasters will be extra-long.  If your autistic child is dead-set on riding at the very front or very back, warn him or her that it will take longer. Time the wait for middle-seat lines, then multiply by 3, if you need to use a visual timer while waiting in line.

 

5. On hot afternoons, head to the shady area attractions with little or no waits.

On particularly hot days most people head to the water-park. This leaves the rest of the park with little or no wait for their attractions. Head to the areas that have more shade, such as 4th of July, Halloween, and Holidog’s Funtown (for younger kids). Wait times were 20 minutes or less; for most rides we got on the next time around.

 

6. Take advantage of their “calming room”.

Holiday World has a “Calming Room” at the First Aid Station located at the entrance to Splashin’ Safari. If you anticipate needing a place for your child to relax after intense sensory stimulation—or gets upset if his or her favorite ride is down at the moment—this is a great amenity for families needing a break.

Autism calming room at Holiday World It is first-come, first-served but you may not be waiting at all for the space. This large room has sound-proof panels, a padded floor mat, couches, bean bags, rocking chairs, dimmed lighting, and a tent.

The only way you would know it’s here, however, is by asking Services where it’s located or finding that information on their website beforehand.  There is no sign pointing out that a “Calming Room” is available there. It’s not even in the Park Map & Information guide. Most autism families most likely don’t know it’s even available.

 

7.  Bring your own sensory tools.

You will need to bring personal sensory tools such as noise-cancelling headphones, fidgets, or music.  Holiday World does NOT provide these items for you to borrow, so don’t leave home without them!  The Calming Room does have a port for you to plug in for special music that soothes your child and allows them to hear it through the room speakers.

 

8. Take a break to see the shows or meet-and-greet some characters.

Grab a Show Guide at the entrance to what and when they are playing. Santa’s Storytime Theater and Hoosier Celebration Theater are well-shaded areas if you want to beat the heat.

 

9. Go to the park on  less-crowded weekdays.

For fewer crowds, I recommend going during the middle of the week during the summer as well as before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Many seasonal passholders come during the weekend, so if you can, try to come on those less expensive “off-days”.

 

10. Check out the gluten-free meal options.

If you have someone on a gluten-free diet, you can visit “George’s Gluten-free Pizza and Snacks” at the 4th of July area. Here you'll find gluten free optionsCheck out the list of allergen-free and gluten-free options here at this link. Consider eating before 11am and between 2pm-5pm for less wait for special orders.

 

11. Before you go, download the Accessibility Guide to get a sense of what each attraction is like.

To see if your child can handle the roller coasters and other ride-based attractions at Holiday World, I highly recommend you watch the Point-of-View videos on YouTube. (Click on the links below to watch a few.).

Sensory-Intense Attractions

 

Here are my two favorite coasters at Holiday World…which also happen to be the most intense:

1. The Voyage

The Voyage is the #3 top-rated wooden roller coaster in the world (TripSavvy). Aptly named, it is designed to make you feel like a pilgrim crossing the Atlantic in a hurricane, complete with the ability to make even the most die-hard roller coaster enthusiasts a bit motion-sick. (The back rows may enhance that likelihood of throwing up over the side.).

I consider myself a roller-coaster aficionado, and the Voyage is the most intense roller coaster I have ever experienced.  I go on it every time I visit! Love it!

Sensory Experience: extremely intense—body-jarring/bumpy; very loud sounds from the coaster on the track; very high heights; very fast; “windy” sensation; few brief dark tunnels; may or will induce motion sickness. Anything not tied down will be lost, including noise-blocking headphones!  Terrific for those sensory-seekers that get a thrill from roller coasters.

 

Challenge yourself to ride this super-charged coaster

2. The Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is the first steel launch-winged coaster in the world. It explodes out of the gate to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, immediately going into an inverted vertical loop (aka…upside-down).

To say this is “thrilling” is an understatement. With feet dangling in mid-air you feel like you are flying like a devil-bird. Unlike the wooden roller coasters, this one is a smooth ride.

My daughter would not go on the Voyage after experiencing the Raven (another wooden coaster) but this one she really liked. I can handle the left side better than the right side of the coaster with the slow inverted turn at the end (get queasy on the right side).

Sensory Experience: moderately intense—very fast launch; smooth ride; high heights; several upside-down turns; may induce motion sickness. Terrific for sensory seekers not afraid of upside-down roller coasters and heights. 

 

Splashin' Safari is terrific for water-lovers

 

3. Splashin’ Safari

There are plenty of play areas for little ones at this water park as well as a giant wave pool and some terrific water coasters like the Wildebeest and Mammoth (for which you can use the “ride boarding pass”). If your autistic child just absolutely loves waterparks, then he or she will have a blast here.

Life-jackets are available on a first- come, first-served basis at the wave pool for children and adults (with chest sizes up to 52”).  If you have an autistic adult with you and he or she is too big for their sizes, bring your own if necessary.

Unfortunately, we have always skipped Splashin’ Safari. My kids prefer the land-rides and sometimes weather has not always cooperated for being in water.

Sensory Experience: Sadly, I cannot review it from a sensory point-of-view. If you have ever been to a large waterpark like Great Wolf Lodge, then you have a sense of what it’s like…only outdoors, more to do, and in an even bigger area. Many people stay all day here and skip the land-rides.  Be sure to watch point-of-view videos out there of their water-based attractions (see previous links).

 

Autism Friendly?

 

For the most part…YES.

Holiday World does offer some nice amenities to those who can’t wait in long lines, need a sensory break, or have a special diet.  They were eager to accommodate when they could.

 

On the other hand…NO.

We needed to advocate a little more using our “ride boarding pass”.  In addition, their accommodations are not always apparent to the first-time guest or even those who have been coming a while like myself.

I highly recommend you check out their website for more information before you go. Hopefully, this autism guide to Holiday World has alleviated some of your concerns in that regard as well.

 

You'll love the old-fashioned carousel!

Why I love Holiday World

The amusement park is unique in that it provides several FREE items: free drinks, free sunscreen, free parking, and free WiFi.   It’s wonderful that they use preventative measures against sunburn and dehydration and make having fun affordable.

The price of admission depends on day of the week and month, ranging from $29.99 to $49.99 on summer weekends.

I love Holiday World! I dearly appreciate this park for trying to accommodate different needs and for the variety of attractions that will surely please everyone.

 

I know you will, too! 

Water Tower at Holiday World

 

I would love to help you plan a fun-filled getaway like this!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

An Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children's Museum

An Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum

See a mama dinosaur and her baby trying to get into the Indianapolis Children's Museum!

Your Autism Guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum

If you have ever wanted to visit the Indianapolis Children’s Museum but were afraid of an intense sensory environment, then allow me to guide you as you navigate your visit with an autism.

 

The “Awesome-est” Museum on the Planet!

What do dinosaurs, a space station, a giant “chocolate” slide, an archeological dig in China, an old-fashioned carousel, and Super Mario Brothers have in common?

Why, they are all located at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum!

There is no other museum that my family and I have visited that is quite like the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.  You can spend several hours, even days, exploring its 5 floors of highly interactive, sensory and educational exhibits.

While most exhibits are permanent, some are temporary for a few months (such as Paw Patrol) or a few years (Take Me There Greece). With actual science experts and interpreters available to answer questions, this is truly a working and ever-evolving museum.

 

Obsessions Fulfilled!

Trains, trains...who loves trains? Find them here at the Indianapolis Children's Museum.Is anyone in your family really into model trains? They have several displays and places to play with toy trains…and an actual steam locomotive used in the late 1800s!

 

Is anyone into dinosaurs? They have real, life-size dinosaur bones on display, a “dig for bones” site, and play areas with giant eggs and dinosaur figures.

 

Is anyone into learning about archeological finds from Egypt, China and the Caribbean? Try on scuba gear, put together pieces of a sarcophagus, or use tools to discover relics from China’s past.

 

Visit a replica of the Space Station at the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Is anyone into space exploration? Discover what it’s like to live on a space station and watch the frequently-run planetarium films on different space-related topics.

 

And much, much MORE! (I’m just scratching the surface of what is there.)

Not Just for Kids!

While its name implies that it’s only for children, I highly beg to differ.  Just recently they had an enormous exhibit of Star Trek paraphernalia, including models of the Enterprise and the costumes worn by the original cast of the TV show and most recent movies.

 

My old Star Wars lunch box is here! I was as giddy as a small child upon discovering that they had my very first lunchbox—a red Empire Strikes Back—encased in a display.

 

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is truly a place for ALL ages. Each exhibit caters to the different developmental stages and sensory experiences—audio, visual, tactile, smell, kinesthetic—making the museum a complete and playful learning environment.

 

Warning…Potential Overload!

Because it is so sensory rich, this can pose problems for some children and adults on the spectrum.  For one, it can be incredibly LOUD.  It can also be very CROWDED (like, theme park crowded) on certain holidays and weekends.

Some displays are very visually stimulating.  The planetarium can be overwhelming for those afraid of darker spaces.  My own autistic children experienced sensory overload within about 4 hours, needing to get away for a short break.

With this in mind, I want to provide you with some important tips for making your trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum a fun and memorable experience for everyone involved.

Come explore with me as I provide you with an autism guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum!

 

BEFORE YOU GO…

1. Plan out when and how long you can visit.

Can you visit during the weekday when it’s not so crowded?

Sometimes the museum has certain “free days” over holidays…DON’T GO THEN!

It is also very crowded over spring break weekend.  Can you visit one day or two?  Can your family handle only a couple hours at a time or all day with a break?

If you live far away and are spending some time in the area, then consider a two-day experience to spread it out, especially if it becomes too overwhelming after a few hours.

 

2. Explore the website of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum.

You’ll be able to see pictures and a few videos of the different attractions in each exhibit.

Also, watch YouTube videos of the attractions with your autistic loved one to get a better sense of what to expect in terms of behavior or anticipated excitement.

Have fun getting to the know the museum with your child!

 

3. Download the Sensory Guide while you plan your trip.

This very thorough resource is designed to help families with autism have the best possible experience. You can print this out at home or ask for one from a ticket-taker.  You will need to have it with you as you go through the museum as there are no sensory designation signs at the exhibit entrances.

They also provide a Social Narrative that you can read with your autistic loved one at home to prepare for this experience. A very helpful Visual Checklist has social story cue cards—both pre-verbal requests as well as pictures of the exhibits—that you can print off and laminate to use while you are at the museum. You can make a pre-determined schedule based on your child’s interests as well as sensory needs.

You can learn about their full range of their accessibility program here.

 

For better prices, buy your tickets to the Indianapolis Children's Museum online.

4. Find out if you qualify for any discounts.

You can get a 25% discount by buying tickets 2-weeks in advance through the website. If your autistic loved one can’t wait in a long ticket line, this is especially helpful.

They do NOT offer AAA discounts at the museum, but you may ask your local AAA office (as well as employee-based programs) if they can sell discounted tickets.

Consider buying a family membership if you plan spend more than one day there within the year and have more than a couple of children within the family.

Another idea: suggest getting tickets or membership as holiday or birthday gifts.

If you are a resident of Indiana and have Medicaid or your autistic kids have a Medicaid-based family supports waiver, your family qualifies for the Access Pass. It will allow you to get in at $2/person.

The Glass Tower by Dale Chiluly...right through the center of the museum

 

WHEN YOU ARRIVE…

5. Come earlier in the day.

Be there at the hour they open if possible. Usually there are less people in the first couple of hours.

If your child has a hard time waiting in line, have a helper wait with him or her while you go get tickets.

6. Visit the concierge for assistance, including sensory tools.

If you didn’t bring your own noise-cancelling headphones, ask for a pair from the level 1 concierge desk.  (I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THESE AS THIS PLACE CAN BE LOUD.) You can find it past the giant water clock near the elevators.

7. Consider starting at the top floor first, then work your way down.

Most people want to explore the lower levels first. But for a shorter line at the carousel (only $1 to ride/person) visit level 4 first thing in the morning.  The exhibits here—Carousel Wishes & Dreams and Science Works—are also the most sensory-stimulating in terms of noise, tactile- movement, visual-spatial, and lighting. You child may be able to handle this area earlier in the day when he or she is less tired and not ripe for a meltdown.

8. Playscape is open to special needs kids. Normally, this very hands-on, movement-based area (level 3) is only for children 5 and under.  But if your older, autistic child would like to explore water, sand, colors, and a climbing structure, feel free to play here.

Read about amazing kids who made a difference in our world! (Also a good quiet spot)9. For some quiet, down-time, visit The Power of Children.

It is a reflective, educational exhibit (level 3) of the lives of three important children who made a difference in the world.  There may be some spaces that induce a calming effect.

Other quiet areas are found on Level 2:  around the ramp (Mini-Masterpieces and Stories from Our Community) and Big Bad and Bizarre where you can find a dark, quiet overlook of the Dinosphere® exhibit.

 10. When you get hungry…

The Food Court can be very chaotic and loud around lunchtime. There is plenty of space to eat so consider the tables further from the cashiers.

But if you would rather bring your own lunch (especially with a special diet), there is a quiet place outside the food court just inside the Dinosphere®.

Ask the concierge if there are other places you can eat that are quieter.

11. If your child is a runner…

Bring along a tracker device if necessary or something your child can wear with your identification and phone number.

Several exhibits have more than one entrance. Dinosphere® is dark, so it can be hard to constantly track your child.

Alert staff “interpreters” at exhibit entrances that your child has autism and is susceptible to take off without warning. They can alert other staff to locate your child.

Consider bringing along other helpers.  Call ahead to see if your certified respite care worker is entitled to a free ticket (317-334-4000).

 12. Potentially “scary places”…Dinosphere is a sensory-intense envrironment!

These include:

  • the Treasures of the Earth elevator (simulates riding down a semi-dark mine-shaft that rattles);
  • the Planetarium (can be disconcerting due to being very dark and playing shows on the rounded ceiling); and…
  • Dinosphere® (darker area with special effects sounds and sights, including dinosaur growling and stormy weather).

With good preparation, your child might be fine handling these.

Watch a video of the experience. Then create a social story with your child.

 

PLAN WELL…HAVE FUN!

While it’s important to be prepared it’s also important to “go with the flow”.  That includes not pushing your child to keep going when they have had enough.

I recommend spending more than one day if you are not from Indiana. Make it a weekend getaway and visit the Indianapolis Zoo as well!

My autistic kids absolutely love this place, even as teenagers. Every visit has been a little different as they have grown up and the museum morphs with new exhibits. We had our challenges with sensory overload (including me!). But it’s one of the most enriching learning and playful places on the planet.

With an autism guide to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum to help you navigate the sensory experiences, you’ll a greater chance of having a lots of fun!

See Bumblebee and hear him talk at the Indianapolis Children's Museum lobby!

 

 

The Indianapolis Children’s Museum is definitely an experience your family will never forget!

 

 

 

I would love to help you plan a fun-filled getaway like this!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

 

Ease your child into camping

Easing Your Child Into Camping

Camping under the stars

In this article I outline the the five steps to take (in order, preferably) to easing your child into the camping experience for the first time.

Making camping with autism a positive experience

It’s one thing to stay in a hotel with comfy beds and the allure of a pool.  It’s another to practically sleep on the ground with nothing but a thin nylon tent separating you and nature.

Many children on the spectrum are adamant about maintaining a nighttime routine.  One little change may lead to a meltdown.

Let me state the obvious: camping disrupts that normal sleep pattern. New “bed,” new place to sleep, new routine, new sights and sounds.  That means unpredictable behaviors.

It’s one thing to avoid camping if it’s just not appealing to everyone in the family.  But if you’re avoiding camping adventures just because you want to avoid unwanted behaviors, I urge you to seriously reconsider!

Don’t miss out on the potential to bond with family and friends in a relaxing, therapeutic environment!  By slowly easing your child into camping adventures, you will find it a much less stressful process to instill a love of vacationing in the great outdoors.

 

Learning to love camping takes time

The smell of roasting marshmallows over the fire.  The thrill of catching fireflies.  The fun of camping in a tent. Everyone is relaxed and happy.

That idyllic picture of camping is not often reality.

We introduced our young kids to camping jumping in head-first. We started off great.  We fished and cooked and played on the playground.

But by 5 AM the next morning my 5-year-old daughter was crying inconsolably. Nothing seemed to calm her down.

Fearing wrath from the entire campsite, who were all still asleep, we packed up our equipment with rapid speed. By 7 AM we had left the campsite with very cranky kids.

We vowed not to try this again for a while.

And we didn’t…. something I regret.

Even with the most seasoned and experienced campers, things don’t always go as planned.

Sometimes an important item is left at home. Your gear doesn’t set up properly.  Someone doesn’t sleep well.  Someone is complaining about the food.  Someone can’t stop crying.  Mosquitos are sucking the life out of you!  UGH!

And then you start thinking… Why didn’t we just stay home?!

Actually, that’s not a bad idea.

 

“Wean” into camping

Maybe, like mine, your own childhood memories are filled with wonderful camping expeditions with your family. Maybe, like me, you can’t wait to share that love with your own kids.

But camping can feel like a very strange and scary thing to do for an autistic child who may become terrified when his or her daily routine is thrown out of whack and comfort zone severely challenged.

My kids were on the verge of getting their autism diagnoses when we first camped. Once I became familiar with autism, my child-rearing philosophy changed.  I realized (many times the hard way) that adapting my kids to new things needed to be set at their own pace.

And, yet, I still needed to motivate them enough to try new challenges. I had to be a little more patient and “wean” them into unfamiliar experiences.  If I had known then what I know now, we would have introduced them more gradually to idea of camping and helped ease them into camping.

If the idea of camping can be introduced in “digestible, bite-size chunks”, then the actual experience away from home can go a little more smoothly and become something your child will actually enjoy.

 

5 Steps to Easing Your Child into Camping

I recommend that you do these steps in order and as long as necessary to feel comfortable before moving to the next one.

 

1. Set up camp in your child’s bedroom.

What a fun way to introduce the idea of camping than in your child’s most comfortable place!

I always wanted a bed-fitted tent when I was a child, but I couldn’t convince my parents to buy one. So, I set up blankets over my bedpost and invited my sisters into my “tent” to play games and read stories.

Get your child comfortable sleeping in a tent in his or her own bed, whether it’s an actual bed-tent or something created. Maintain your normal bedtime routine. Bring in comfortable, familiar items (favorite blanket, toy or sensory equipment).

Use this time to talk about it as “camping” in order to associate it with a positive, comforting experience. Practice using flashlights.

*(If your child is co-sleeping with you, consider setting up something beside your bed.)

 

2. Set up camp in your living room.

This can be done during the day on a pretend-play basis at first. Keep a small play tent up permanently if you have room.

Do what you would do in a real camping experience: pretend sleep (or take real naps), pretend building a campfire, pretend cook, pretend fish, etc.

Include favorite comfort sensory items, like a soft or weighted blanket, fidget spinner, or a stuffed toy.

Watch videos of people camping to show what it’s like. Find or create your own social story of the outdoor camping experience so your child can associate fun “home camping” with camping in a new place.

When your child is ready, set up an overnight “living room camping” in which everyone in the family is involved.  It could be included alongside your own weekend routine (like a movie or game-night) but call it “inside camping” when it’s time to sleep.

Share your enthusiasm with your child—make it fun!  Do this a few times until you think your child is ready to try a new place to camp.

 

3. Set up camp in your backyard (if possible).

Moving your camp from indoors to outdoors can feel like sudden transition, even though you are still at home. There might be some anxiety about the darkness, being outside, hearing different sounds, etc.

Consider setting up a tent outside during the day for pretend-play first.  Let your child explore the fun of outside-camping on his/her own.

If you can set up a campfire in your backyard, begin to introduce how to behave around a fire and perhaps cooking over a fire during the evening hours. Start introducing camping tools, like hot dog forks.

When you’re ready, have the family move to the tent to sleep. Be sure to include the same favorite bedtime routines and sensory items. Even if your child can only sleep half-way through the night outside, it’s a big step!

Keep trying until you make it through the night.

 

4. Set up camp at a family or friend’s house.

At this point your child should be more comfortable being outside. But now it’s time to move to another place away from home.

I suggest possibly setting up camp in the backyard of a beloved family member or friend as a way to transition to a real campground experience. Maybe grandma or grandpa would like to host your family’s camp-out and be willing to welcome you in the house in the event your child becomes anxious.

Remember, same routine…same comfort items.

 

5. Set up camp at a nearby campground or state park.

When ready, consider staying somewhere close by for one night, say…maybe less than an hour away (if possible).

Some campgrounds require more than one night minimum on holidays, so if you’re not ready for more than one night you may have to go on non-holiday weekends.  That’s probably best to avoid the crowds.

Conduct some research into the campground. Does it have nice amenities that will allow your child to feel comfortable and have fun? Fishing, swimming, playground, hiking, outdoor games?

Be sure to include the familiar things from the previous camping experiences at home, including favorite meals, bedtime routine and personal sensory items.

The fact that the family is sleeping together in one tent or camper will provide some comfort in this new situation as well.

 

Small Steps Lead to Giant Achievements

While camping may be a hard transition for your special needs child, it will foster in him or her a love of nature as well as some incredible life skills.

When children overcomes their fears, they often feel a burst of self-confidence. This leads to a greater willingness to try new things beyond their comfort zones.  Camping provides many new experiences to build self-confidence.

Besides vacations with family, one of the best ways to learn life skills and build confidence while camping is participating in a scouting organization.

My 17-year-old son has camped so many times with his Boy Scout troop I lost count. Simple weekend camp-outs led to week-long adventures.

When he was 14-years-old he spent several nights along lakesides at Boundary Waters in Minnesota.  This past summer he explored the iconic Black Hills in South Dakota.  His ultimate camping adventure was sleeping on a sailboat for a week in the Florida Keys.

Because he was comfortable enough to sleep outside away from home and family for a week at a time, he got a job at the local scout camp.  He now has gained valuable employment skills.

Apart from therapy, Scouting has provided some of the greatest social and developmental benefits for my autistic kids. Read my article “Why Scouts BSA is Terrific for Autistic Youth” to understand how involvement in Scouts leads to incredible personal growth.

 

Easing into Camping is the Key to Self-Growth

To access the potential development of life skills and self-confidence, consider camping!  Hopefully, the five steps I have outlined of easing your child into the camping experience will help significantly in achieving those goals!

The trick is to maintain a sense of familiarity by using similar routines and comfort items from home and transfer the camping experience across different settings—from inside to outside and from home to another place.

Try to keep the experience positive all the way through the learning process to reinforce that camping is a “good thing”. Push limits but recognize when enough is enough.  It may take weeks, months or even years…but you’ll get there!

For more information about the sensory and autism-related considerations of the camping experience, read my article “Camping with Autism“. You will also find helpful tips on campers to help you decide which ones is most suitable for your needs.

Above all, have fun!!  The whole experience gets easier the more times you try it!

 

 

If you think your older child may be ready for camp experience for one night or several nights away from home, check out this very informative article by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sensory solutions for a Disney park trip

Sensory Solutions for a Disney Park Trip

Solutions for Sensory Needs during a Disney Park Trip

In this article I will break down the different challenges and provide solutions for those with sensory needs when they take a trip to a Disney park.  

Take my autistic kids to Walt Disney World?  Are you CRAZY?!

You mean, take someone who has meltdowns when overloaded by crowds and intense sensory stimulation to a place that is crowded and full of intense sensory stimulation?  HA!  Very funny… 

Actually, I am NOT kidding…not one bit.

Okay, just hear me out!

Maybe you think a trip to the see the beloved Disney characters and princesses is out of the question. Or maybe you’re considering resigning yourself to the fact that a trip to Walt Disney World will be just like any other trip to the grocery store where the meltdown is inevitable…

…and you’ll just deal with it.

 

But there is HOPE!

Many people–children and adults alike–have gone to Walt Disney World and had a wonderful time!

The trick is…know your loved one’s sensory needs and triggers well! 

Knowing what kind of experiences your autistic loved one can handle in other settings will help you prepare for the very sensory-stimulating environment of Walt Disney World.

 

Sensory Challenges

Is your loved one hypo-sensitive (seeks out) or hyper-sensitive to (avoids) large crowds, visual stimulation and noise?

Even if someone that craves stimulation finds Disney parks to be a dream-come-true, he or she may suddenly have a meltdown when tired.

Here is a breakdown of things to do by the types of sensitivities and the sensory solutions for a trip to a Disney park:

1. For SOUND sensitivity

This is perhaps the most common sensitivity among those with autism.

Bring soothing tactile devices and sound-barring headphones (for those loud parades, attractions and fireworks).

Map out places where there are quiet places to recharge (Guest Relations can help with that).

2. For TOUCH Sensitivity…

Those that crave physical interaction will LOVE the character greetings. Even Tigger will hug you, the parent, without warning!

If your loved one doesn’t like strangers touching him or her, alert the character handlers (regularly clothed cast members who stand beside the costumed characters). Tell the about his/her tactile needs, particularly whether light touch and a hug is okay or would prefer no touch at all.

3. For TASTE Taste Sensitivity…

Get familiar with the restaurant menus at the parks.

Disney is very good about accommodating diverse dietary needs. But it’s a good idea let them know in advance at dine-in restaurants through the My Disney Experience app or by calling (407) WDW-DINE.

At quick service ask them what is available. (You can always recruit your personal travel advisor/planner like myself to help you with this.)

Another option is to bring your own meals in a small cooler (no glass bottles).

4. For SMELL Sensitivity…

Certain attractions will have artificial scents that add to the immersion-factor.  The most common is a low-intensity water scent on boat rides. But a few attractions give off more potent smells. (Soarin’ has “pleasant nature scents” while Journey into Imagination with Figment at Epcot has a stinky scent).

Of course, the most common outdoor scents will come from food.

If your loved one has an absolute aversion to certain scents, it’s good to know where in the park they come from (feel free to ask questions below in the comments section).

5. For SIGHT Sensitivity…

Is your loved one extremely sensitive to certain visual elements? Are strobe-light effects potential harmful?  Certain attractions have intense flashing lights (Flights of Passage at Animal Kingdom and Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom).

If darkness is a problem, as many attractions are dark rides, consider having your loved one watch “point-of-view” videos of the rides in order to see if they would be willing to try it.

 

Other Special Needs Challenges

For those with LANGUAGE challenges…

Does your loved one have issues communicating through words? 

Bring a visual schedule or augmentative communication device so he or she can adequately express his or her needs.

If your loved one is non-verbal and gets separated from you, it would be very wise to have a plan in place to locate him or her.

For those with SAFETY AWARENESS challenges…

Is autistic loved one a flight risk? 

Consider having a bracelet, lanyard, sticker, badge or a GPS Tracker (like Angel Sense) with your name and phone number in case he or she gets lost. This will greatly help Cast Members locate your loved one.

Consider telling Guest Relations know this is a potential risk when you get the DAS.

Is your loved one prone to full body meltdowns around a mass of people? 

Any cast member will help you with these issues, including helping you find an out-of-way place to calm down and getting the word out to other cast members that your child is missing.

The First Aid station is an option (located between Crystal Palace and Casey’s Corner restaurants near the Main Street and central hub).

For those with BODY-SPACE AWARENESS challenges…

Does your autistic loved one have a hard time understanding the social or safety impact of standing too close to others?  

This is a hard one! Everyone stands so close to one another in lines that the normal “arms-length distance” rule between people flies out the window.

We had to constantly pull our son back because he either stood a few inches too close to people (one person told him to “get back!”) or he is so determined to get to that ride that he practically cuts people in line.

When verbal reminders are not enough, a visual cue or a potential reward for keeping a good distance from others may be warranted. Sometimes having our kids stand behind us and not in front of us helped. Then, it’s up to the people behind THEM to stand an adequate distance.

For those susceptible to MELTDOWN TRIGGERS…

What are situations that bring on a meltdown? 

Everyone, not just those with autism, has their own “tipping point” before they go into “shutdown mode”.

Don’t rush your autistic loved one all over the parks.  You may be risking a meltdown by trying to get all the rides done in one day—most people without sensory can’t do that.

Waiting in line for more than an hour can be a meltdown trigger. Sometimes having something to occupy your child (videos/games an iPhone) may be helpful.

But having the DAS will be a lifesaver, allowing you to wait “outside the line” and do other things (watch a parade, meet characters, eat, etc.) before riding the attraction.

For those with TRANSITION challenges…

Does your loved one have trouble grasping a sense of time, waiting, or moving from one event or setting to another?

If a child has NEVER been to Disney before, they have no idea what to expect. If they LOVE Disney, then the familiarity and associations between movies and rides might be enough to help them get through the park without much prepping.

 

Prep Your Child Before Your Disney Trip

However, if a child has even minor issues moving from one task or place to another and is rigid in their use of time in the “real world”, then I STRONGLY SUGGEST that you prep them about the parks before travel!

Watch attraction videos.

Creating social stories about your overall trip or individual park days.

Have them help plan places to visit and dine.

Watch Disney movies and tie them in to certain attractions.

Study the park maps together.

 

Take Advantage of Disney Accommodations for Autism

Walt Disney World and Disneyland have a wonderful accommodation in place to help with those who have a hard time waiting and understanding time.

The Disability Access Service—or the DAS—serves to allow those with cognitive-sensory differences like autism to wait “outside the line”.  You can get that at any park Guest Relations.

Even though this is incredibly helpful while at the parks, it’s still a very good idea to establish a sensory plan BEFORE traveling. That way,  you can pack the items needed and know exactly how to handle any sensory issues that suddenly arise in the parks.

These sensory-based solutions will ensure everyone’s safety and peace-of-mind for a more relaxing and memorable trip to a Disney Park!

I would love to help you plan a magical Disney vacation!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!