Many special needs parents secretly (or not secretly) dread public outings. Many will even avoid family outings like shopping trips, or eating at a restaurant. Most children are more likely to act up when they are away from home. This has a whole different meaning for kids with autism. A public outing can be unpredictable, there can also be many triggers that cause overstimulation. Fluorescent lights, loud noises, and crowds of people are all things that could easily trigger a public meltdown. Public Meltdowns are much worse than a child who is just acting out. They could be unpredictable, and involve sudden aggressive behaviour. There is often no way to stop it and you just have to ride it out.
Dealing with this challenges can make parents feel worn down. However, there are strategies that you can learn to prepare for these events and make them more successful. I am going to outline how to plan ahead for all public activities and reduce the chances of a public meltdown. Be sure to get your free printable planner at the end of the post.
Planning Ahead to Avoid Public Meltdowns
Whenever you are taking your son somewhere, it’s important to plan ahead. It is best to include your son while writing the plan. Have a reward or two in mind before talking to your son about the plan, and include his ideas whenever possible. When your son is involved in making the plan, he will feel that his feelings are valued, and he will know exactly what to expect.
There are six simple steps to planning an activity outside your home to avoid public meltdowns:
- Choose the location
- Give your child choices
- Plan ahead for interruptions
- Do a trial run
- Give the promised reward
- Assess the plan and make changes, if necessary
Step 1 : Location
Where are you going? Start out with easier situations, like visiting a friend or family member, or going for a walk. Using the plan in a simpler situation first will increase the chance that your child will be successful. Helping them be successful in the beginning will raise their confidence. If you child feels confident for more challenging outings, it will be easier for them to follow the plan.
Decide when and where you will talk to your child about the plan. Make sure you choose a time and place where there are few distractions so you both can focus. Tell them about the situation, and when it will take place. Keep it very simple and easy to understand. Then ask for ways they can help. “On Tuesday, we are going for a walk at the park. Can you help me write the plan?”
Step 2: Choices
Allow your child to give input on how they can help or what they will do during the plan, and what the reward will be. As you make the plan together write down all of your child’s suggestions even if they aren’t realistic. It is important that they feel like you care about their thoughts. Write down some options of your own as well, and then later decide which ones you will use. For example, when going for a walk at the park your child can help by walking close to you, staying on the path, and keeping their hat on. Choose things appropriate for the situation, and that you know they can do.
Next choose some options for the reward when the plan is successful. Choose rewards that can be given immediately. It’s important that your child can associate the reward to following the plan. It could be a sticker, or a small treat like bubble gum, a dollar store toy, or anything the two of you can think of that is motivating. This means it doesn’t necessarily need to be a material item, it could be playing a favorite game with you.
Listen to your child’s ideas and guide them to come up for more ideas. It is likely they will have ideas that you don’t agree with. This is fine, write them all down and then you can decide together which ideas will work best. It’s good to have a couple of options in case your child becomes bored with the first one. You will be able to change the reward on the fly if you need to. Give your child lots of praise for helping write the plan. “You have so many great ideas”, “I couldn’t have planned this without your help!”
Step 3: Interruptions
Anticipate some interruptions you are likely to face while you’re out and plan ahead of time exactly how you will deal with them. Make a list of minor and major interruptions. When you have anticipated interruptions it will be easier to stay calm and in control. The situation will be much less stressful for you. You will also notice the signs leading up to public meltdowns sooner and can intervene.
It’s normal for kids to forget the plan. Minor interruptions may only require a gentle reminder. Use a first-then statement, or remind them of the plan.”Do you remember our plan?”, or “Remember, when we stick to the plan, you get a sticker”. A simple redirection may also work. “Come here, let’s count how many squirrels we can find on our walk” Be sure to give your child lots of positive affirmations immediately after an interruption, when they return to following the plan.
Major interruptions need to be dealt with right away. If your child runs off the path on your walk, or does have a meltdown, you must know exactly how you will react. You may need to run after them if they run away. Or you may plan to remove them from the situation immediately if she is having a public meltdown. You know your child best and are the best person to predict potential major interruptions and plan the best way to handle them.
If you do get her back on track after a major interruption continue to encourage her, and still reward her even though the trip wasn’t completely successful. It will take time.
Step 4: Trial
It’s time to try the plan. Before you leave review the plan and how you are going to deal with interruptions. Then, remind your child about the plan, and the reward. Ensure they know what is expected of them. As you execute your plan, give praise to your child often. It’s important to give positive reinforcement at four key times during your outing:
- When the plan starts
- After an interruption
- During the plan when it’s going well
- At the end
Step 5: Reward
When the plan has ended it is time for the reward! Acknowledge your child’s efforts and give the reward even if things didn’t go perfectly. These outings can be really hard for your child and it can take a lot of work to get through them so it is important to see acknowledge that they tried. You may need to try something different next time, or it may just take her a few tries to get the hang of it. You can decide on any changes that must be made during step 6.
Step 6: Assess
When the plan is done and you’re home it’s time to sit down and assess the plan, step by step. Ask yourself these questions:
- How well did it work?
- Does anything need to be changed for next time?
- If so, what?
- Take notes next to the steps so you can prepare for next time.
- Did anything unexpected happen that caused upset?
- Were there any unanticipated interruptions that you can plan for next time
Over time you can become more prepared and your child will also be more familiar with the plan. Constantly assess how things went and making changes helps you stay ahead of the game and avoid the same meltdown trigger happening more than once.
Making a plan following these steps, overtime, will make public outings more enjoyable for the whole family and reduce the likelihood of public meltdowns. When you enjoy your time out together, everyone will be happier.
A few months ago I made a plan with my two older kids specifically for eating out at restaurants. We planned it out together and now use it every time we eat out. We do change the rewards whenever we need to but the expectations stay the same so my kids always know what I want them to do. The plan is very simple, and the three ways they help are by sitting on their bums, using their indoor voices, and using their manners.
Any time we are going out to eat, they know ahead of time. In the car I say “Alright guys, what’s the plan?” and they can recite “sit on my bum, use my indoor voice, use my manners” I will praise them for remembering “Great job guys you remembered the plan!” and then I will ask them about the reward, too “What are we working for today by following the plan?” and they will say whatever reward we decided that day and then we head into the restaurant.
Once inside I do sometimes need to remind them about the plan, but the overall experience is much more pleasurable. It’s great that my family can go out and enjoy a meal together, where before it was nearly impossible. They need the most reminders while waiting for their food. They get impatient and usually start climbing around their seats or talking loudly, or whining for their food. We changed the plan a bit so now they bring their tablets along so they can play a game or watch videos while they wait. Meltdowns may still happen but it’s rare for us now because my whole family is well versed in this plan.
Recently, at Pizza Hut, J hit is hand off the side of a chair, which sent him into meltdown mode. Luckily this was as we were leaving the restaurant but he did run farther into the dining room and hide under a chair. I went to him and first distracted him by holding my hands out and getting him to hit them (don’t ask, just know it helped get out some frustration in a more suitable way), then I offered him a piggy back to the car and we left. What could have been a huge outburst, and a very stressful public situation ended up only being a small hiccup in our overall great evening.
Remember, don’t expect success over night. It takes patience and consistency from you, and time and practice from your child to get good at something. If public outing are a struggle, don’t give up. Continue to use this six step plan and take your child on short and simple outings to give them opportunities for success.