How to Have Great Field Trips with Students with Autism

In our family we have experienced several terrible field trips. There was Christmas in the Park where he didn’t attend at all because the preschool felt they could not safely take him off of campus.  There was the Gizdich Apple Farm where he interacted with no one, and could not sit long enough to hear the little presentation about apples and cider-making. There was the Exploratorium where he could not manage the long car ride, the overstimulation of the museum, and he upset his peers and teacher because he did not seem to understand non-verbal communication (facial expressions and gestures).   By 2nd grade, I was pondering throwing in the towel and not having him do any more field trips. I began to realize that if we were going to have a successful field trip I needed more preparation for my son with autism spectrum disorder (high-functioning), to be able to tolerate and appreciate field trips.  Some things I researched, and some things I just had an intuition about.

Here are the TOP TEN THINGS that worked for us with FIELD TRIPS:

field tripAdvance warning – Whenever I got notice, I marked upcoming field trips on our family calendar. Our family uses a large calendar in a central area of the kitchen for all to see.

Calendar review – We had this ritual of reviewing the calendar at the beginning of each week,  usually Sunday night.  My son had a chance to ask questions, and I could show how many days, or  weeks to the event.  His perception of time passages was really poor, so this step helped to provide the support he needed.

Frontloading the activity – Ahead of each event, I had my son use his computer and look for pictures and websites of places that we would be going to.  This was an awesome step which was worth doing because my son is a visual thinking.  He would get to the place and say, “Hey mom that’s just like the picture I saw on the website.”  That one small thing helped him to know what to expect and not feel anxious.

field trip Intel MuseumCapitalize on his interests – If your student has a special interest that he may see or participate in on a field trip, do what you can to get him to that trip.  Kids with autism usually have limited interests, but a child who loves animals could have a great trip to the zoo or a student who loves computers would probably do well at the Intel Museum trip.  My son was into gemstones, and loved the 4th grade field trip to the state capitol and “gold-mining” at Sutter’s Mill.

Skip the bus – I, or my husband, drove him.  Yes, that means a big chunk of time out of my, or my husband’s day, but they were many things we could control to keep my son regulated – the familiarity of our own vehicle, climate control, noise abatement (Did you know the decibel level in a standard school bus with school kids going to a field trip is 60-65 dBs?)

Attend the field trip with him – I know this seems like a lot,  especially for parents who don’t have flexible work schedules, but this is a really important step.  No one knows your child as well as you.  You will be able to tell if the trip is going well, or if your child’s had enough.  You can encourage him to eat his lunch (no surprises, because you packed it) and watch out for other regulation issues.  When you’ve driven there in your own vehicle, you have an escape route that is open to you and your child, and you won’t have to rely on the prepared schedule or the school transportation.

Enlist the help of an understanding classmate – If you have the good fortune of having a sensitive classmate who could be his “buddy” during the trip, by all means do it.  Once we disclosed his diagnosis and his challenges to his classmates, several students came to me , thanked me for the information, and asked about how they could be a better friend to him.  Tap into these “friends” on field trips.

After the field trip, go directly home – Again if you’ve driven him there in your vehicle, you do not have to go back to school.  There is an advantage to not going back to school and just taking your child directly home.  Often these trips are fraught with unknowns, so if your child is inclined to get anxious and/or overstimulated, the sooner you get him home the better.  Be sure to OK this step with your child’s teacher ahead of time.

Provide decompression time and activities – Does your child need deep pressure or quiet?  After he gets home, support him with a nutritious snack (if he’ll eat it), and a place, and activities, that help regulate him.  My son would head for bed and asked for the heaviest blankets and pillows to be piled on top of him, then 20 minutes of quiet and he was completely regulated.

Debrief – After the trip, spend some time going over the things that worked well and the things that were troublesome.  Make a plan for the next time to take advantage of this information.

You can have great field trips with your child.  Just follow these simple ideas.