Outdoor activities-Autistic children
As mentioned again in previous posts, I can of course only speak for our experiences with our autistic son Andre, but thought it may be helpful for those out there wondering how best to entertain autistic children outdoors by putting together our list of Great outdoor activities for autistic children, based on our son’s favourite outdoor activities.
We have found that often the things that really interest our son outdoors, are often not a big deal to non ASD children-and things those children are often into, Andre has no interest for whatsoever.
This is a big part of the reason why when we pick him up from childcare each weekday, he’s most often off in some other area of the playground, or centre, from where everyone else is.
In these instances, he doesn’t seem lonely or anything of the sort, just quite happy in his own world, doing his own thing. We do find he often does seem happier outside, even if it sometimes as simple as walking up a hill with dad-he’s into it.
When he’s at home of course, he insists on us all doing everything as a family, which is great, so we’re happy to oblige. He is certainly the loudest one in the house, so outdoor play can come in handy for our own mental states at times!
Whether Andre is at childcare, or at home, these are the main areas of outdoor play that he generally gravitates towards the most:
We’ve always made sure Andre has had a kid’s paddling pool each summer, and have updated them many times when they’ve been popped by cats, stones etc. Andre generally takes all his balls into the pool with him-basketballs, soccer balls, rugby balls, about 12 in total.
Like everything, he enjoys it most when mum and dad are in the pool with him-though also like everything, he seems like he could kinda go either way with Ava joining us sadly.
When I was younger, friends used to call me ‘Alligator blood’ whenever we went surfing, as I’d always be the first in, the last out, and always the one that insisted on boardies, not a wetsuit-despite how cold the water can get in winter in New Zealand, where I grew up.
I only bring this up because Andre almost seems to have inherited this trait, as even with his pool in the back yard, after he’s done jumping around playing in it, he’ll often just sit there, whilst getting cold, even when you can see him start to shiver, he’ll continue to just sit there staring at one particular spot.
Obviously we pull him out as soon as we start noticing these signs, and get him instantly into a hot bath, but it sometimes truly does seem like if we didn’t, he would just continue to sit there until he turns blue and numb.
That’s also when the local heated indoor pools can come in handy, no sitting in cold water. Naturally, Andre absolutely loves going to the local pools, the only hard part is leaving once we’re done-simply because he never wants to leave.
Cars and track sets
Andre has played with matchbox cars since he was tiny, and will often still carry one around as one of his ‘items’ for the day/week (as discussed in previous posts)
As is apparently common with autism, he often does still enjoy lining up cars in single rows, and very rarely ‘plays’ with them in the traditional sense of pushing them around making car noises-they’re more just something he seems to really like to have one of throughout the day.
As a lot of these tracks that Andre loves are used by firing the cars from one of the various boosting mechanisms across the track, the cars often go flying all over the place-particularly with the large one in the picture.
Because of this reason, having them here on our back deck seems a bit of a safer option for the likes of Ava, who is still getting around by crawling at this time, and has unfortunately taken a few minor hits here and there from flying cars when we tried them inside the house.
Either way, they tend to keep Andre happy so we’ll stick with them for now. The Hot Wheels tracks can be handy as they’re all interchangeable, carrying the same universal connection pieces.
If you can try to involve your child with putting them together, we’ve found it helps encourage a bit of strategy, planning, and determination, to get just the right combination of jumps and turns that Andre’s looking for.
Bubble wands & dispensing machines
This is likely true for most babies and toddlers, but yes it is safe to say Andre has had quite a few various bubble dispensing wands, guns and machines.
We’ve found using them outdoors best, as any breeze will carry them various different ways, Andre usually chasing them down. Ava is still trying to work them out fully, but loves them either way, so they’re often a win- win for us.
My recommendation there would just be to go with the automatic machines- like the ones pictured above, as blowing bubbles through wands etc gets old somewhat quickly for the one blowing the bubbles!
Sand & Water Play Tables
We actually have a new one of these on order at the moment waiting to be delivered, as Andre adores these things. Again it mainly seems to all stem from the fact that they hold water, so he’ll put his face on to the water, want to put his arms and hands in, pour things and so on.
His last one got absolutely thrashed, hence why we don’t have any pictures of it, and are awaiting a new one. This has been one outdoor toy that our son absolutely adores though, as one of the very few he will spend hours standing at, having a great time.
As we have fairly cold winters here in the capital, this is often one of the few outdoor activities Andre is still able to enjoy, as we just simply fill it with warm water.
This is so far probably up there with Andre’s favourite places he’s ever been. This suits me as I’m obsessed with beaches and good surf myself.
The beach offers many opportunities for children to explore various textures-sea water, sand, shells, rock pools to name a few, that you simply won’t find anywhere else.
One great thing about the beach is there are a variety of ways they can keep kids entertained. For us a few of these have included swimming, building sand castles, checking out various rocks, crabs etc in rock pools, flying kites on the beach, and playing catch.
The other obvious bonus with the beach is just simply the beach itself, even just wading feet through sea water, and taking a moment to enjoy the tranquility of the sounds of crashing waves, has been proven to dramatically reduce stress levels in humans.
Because of this, we’ve definitely found that taking a moment to just take in the beach itself can bring about it’s own feelings of peace and presence.
We know this can mean only good things for our son, and his happiness every time we’ve taken him to the beach certainly ensures we’ll still be aiming to get back as often as we can.
I very much look forward to hopefully one day being able to talk with my son and teach him things about beaches, tides, swell, and of course would absolutely LOVE to see him get into surfing with me-but we’re going to love and support whatever he wants to do, and whoever he wants to be.
Andre started his cycling on the small plastic one on the left, and is now onto his Wiggles bike with the training wheels, but definitely has a lot more practice to do before he fully masters it.
As it’s difficult to explain things to him, not knowing what he does and doesn’t understand, he’s been having some trouble thus far with working out exactly what he’s meant to do with his feet and the pedals-but he’s still dead keen, so we’ll definitely keep at it.
Sometimes I go down to one of our local schools on weekends to shoot a few hoops on the basketball court, and I’ll take Andre with me, with his bike, as provides him with a nice flat, even and wide surface to practice on.
There are a few various skills involved with riding a bike, with multiple things to remember to do at once, with pedaling, steering and so on, so we’ve found it good for trying to get Andre to focus, and it’s been a heart-warming experience for us as parents watching as his confidence has grown with his bike, and play in general.
(Above; Andre loves getting his dance on in the lounge to his Wiggles specials-whilst Ava studies the moves. Right: All tuckered out at the age of 2 after dancing up a storm at his 2nd Wiggles concert)
Andre is a big fan of dancing to his favourite Wiggles specials and various other songs in children’s movies and shows. He does do it a lot in the living room, when watching these shows, but also will often have his own little jig going when he’s jumping around in his paddling pool or just out in the back yard.
As I’ll often have music playing out the back with us through a Bluetooth speaker, I try to give him tunes that will encourage it more, as he loves it, and it naturally burns up energy too-hopefully making him more calm when it comes to bedtime later that day.
Most animated kid’s films have a few songs throughout them, for the last 4 or 5 months, Andre has been hooked on “The Polar Express” featuring the voice of Tom Hanks.
Andre’s favourite parts are the songs they do aboard the train, and he’ll do his best impersonation of the full routine. This is adorable to watch, and just seeing the happiness in his face makes it a little easier to keep watching the same movie Every.Single.Day.
Again this is another that is of course common with all children really, but with the bigger playgrounds we take Andre to, such as this indoor one pictured, we find it a good place where he can just be himself, and let out all the yelling he wants-as it is usually fairly well muted with the sounds of all the other children.
Because Andre doesn’t talk yet, he screams really high-pitched, short bursts, mainly when he’s excited-i.e. he does it every, single, time he gets to the end of the big 3 slide pictured.
This is one of the few places we feel we can take him with much more confidence that there won’t be any of the typical loud, screaming public tantrums-just happy little screaming bursts and loads of smiles, blended in to the surrounding screams from other kids.
This is also the one place we don’t have to worry too much when his ‘I have autism’ hat comes off- as there are plenty of other children also screaming and yelling in excitement.
One thing I’ve always noticed with our son is that he loves watching and chasing around older kids, and observing what they’re doing, so we have found that his confidence in playgrounds is growing too.
In the playground pictured, the first couple of times we visited, Andre wouldn’t climb anywhere near the top of the tower there for the giant spiral slide, but now, after getting higher up each time, and more confident, he can’t keep off the spiral slide a lot of the time he’s there.
The first time I saw him climb to the top of the slide, he was following a couple of slightly older boys, so Andre certainly seems to learn and be encouraged by the actions of older kids.
This is when playgrounds can be very helpful too if you’re wanting your child to develop a bit more confidence to back themselves, or to push themselves a bit more-sometimes seeing other kids doing it is all the motivation they need.
Like he is with pretty much all things, Andre will become extremely fixated on one toy or activity at a time, for usually around a week or two, and that will be all he wants to do, until it switches to something else for a couple of weeks, and so on.
Outdoor play-good for the whole family
The added benefit for us as parents with encouraging outdoor play, is that he naturally tends to use up a lot more energy on days when he’s visited his favourite play centre, gone to a park or two and other activities that he naturally tends to expel a lot more energy whilst doing.
Obviously there are various other added benefits to children interacting with the outdoors a bit more too. For us, these have included a calmer, more peaceful Andre come bedtime that night, a lot more smiles and laughs and even just the chance for us to get a bit of a breather whilst we look after Andre’s sister Ava.
Those blissful moments (or minutes if you’re lucky!) when both children are happily occupied-often for us meaning Andre is in his pool and Ava is happy in her Jolly Jumper, these are our tiny windows of opportunity to try to fit in a coffee, or, depending on the time of day, maybe even a quick glass of wine or, god forbid, a power nap even!
Before we had children I’d struggled my whole life with insomnia, starting from around my teens through to us having children- though it’s certainly not a problem these days!
Since Ava came along, aka “Ava the Raver” she has proven almost every single night in her 12.5 months of life that she is not a huge fan of sleeping at night time-at all.
Once Ava masters the art of walking, we’re hoping things will finally ease up a bit, as she’ll at least then be more free to run around the back yard and parks etc with her big brother who she still absolutely adores. So once again, outdoor play is going to come in very handy for us once Ava is more mobile too.
Feed the sensory need
For autistic children, at least in our son’s case, we’ve found the exposure to all the various textures of the outside world, does tend to help keeping Andre pretty happy, amused and occupied.
Whether it’s experimenting with some painting, colouring, planting trees or creating mud in the back yard with the hose, there is usually a plethora of various basic things parents can use to amuse autistic children like our son, in a way that he gets plenty of sensory input from a wide range of textures.
He will often take random objects and hold them up to his face, which thus far seems to be a sensory input type thing for him-as definitely doesn’t do it with objects he’s not into, or doesn’t like the feel of.
Like his dad, he’s pretty obsessed with water, so his pool gets a fair amount of use in summer months, he really enjoys going to the local indoor swimming centre with the family, and (very much like his dad) absolutely loves the beach.
The hard part with the beach, which as a surfer I personally struggle a lot with myself, is the fact that we live close to 3 hours away from the nearest piece of coastline.
This wasn’t an issue for me to duck down early on a Saturday morning for a few waves before we had kids, but now, it is a whole new mission-as very much becomes a matter of keeping Andre happy in the car at all times.
Ava is a different story, pretty much any trip, anywhere, within about 5 minutes of being in the car, she’s asleep, so very easy in that one regard.
We certainly plan to return to living back on the beaches again, such as the Gold Coast, where my wife and I used to live before we moved inland, but with 2 extra people to consider, therapy and support for our son needing to stay consistent, and the typical family financial constraints, it’s very much more a matter of when that is the tricky part for us.
Until then though, we will continue seeking out various ways to enable our son to enjoy the outdoors, whilst also trying to encourage him to maybe play with other kids when they want to play with him.
Autism social interaction problems
At his childcare facility, there will usually be a few kids trying to engage with Andre, try to join in on what he’s doing, but quite often Andre will just walk away and go do something else.
Other times, I’ve picked him up, and he’s been happily running around with a couple of other children playing tag/chases, and really does look to be enjoying himself a lot.
We believe because of his current lack of words, he has trouble showing others he wishes them to join him in play-so we’ve had some reports of him throwing small toys at kids, as he just wanted them to play with him.
I’m very desperately trying to teach Andre the difference between throwing something to someone, and throwing something at someone-2 very different things, that he hasn’t quite grasped yet. Luckily no one has been harmed, hopefully it stays that way.
We’re happy for him to be an individual, and to do what makes it happy, but we feel if he can develop one or two close relationships with others around his age, it could dramatically help with his development.
We figure, having other peers to model certain behaviours from, and hopefully developing a wider vocabulary at some point from associating more closely with other, speaking children, can only help Andre familiarise himself with common words.
The whole drop off, pick up routine we have with the kids, brings with it a whole bunch of it’s own challenges with Andre’s behaviours, but I’ll delve deeper into that in my next post.
Getting back to basics
If you too have a child on the autism spectrum who has trouble finding some calm at times, as well as challenges with coming up with things to occupy themselves without outdoors, perhaps try a few of these ideas that have worked for us.
Of course there are times when we’re just too exhausted, and have to revert to a screen for a while for their entertainment. I dare say, some of that can be good for some things too, at least in our experience. Andre watches shows and tries to repeat the words being said, and is where he has picked up many of the words he now says.
Sometimes it literally can be as easy as walking up a hill with Andre, sometimes we have to get a bit more creative. I personally hate seeing my kids looking bored anytime at all, so we try to keep it interesting for them.
I find it helpful to remember that when trying to entertain Andre in particular, some things that I may think are dull or boring, can be some of the most exciting things out there to him-so to always pay attention to his reactions to various stimuli.
Seemingly meaningless things for us grown-ups, such as muddy puddles, are just looked at, it seems, by Andre as awesome opportunities for a whole bunch of messy fun.
Of course getting out amongst it all in the outdoors, exploring, getting covered in all kinds of dirt and loving every minute of it is only natural for children, and in the case of terrible sleepers (Ava) and severe autism (Andre) the more we can do to try to help everyone in the house get some relaxing, good sleep at night, we feel is definitely worth the effort.