Gradual Exposure

I am not sure what the stat’s are on this one, but it could be fair to say that most parents of young children have experienced at some point the ‘shopping centre meltdown’. You know…the one where your child tantrums and where everybody looks at you, and for a moment you are THAT parent. The flustered, apologetic, red-faced, and exasperated one.

Relate to that? Or even observed that?

Except in my picture the screaming was louder, the child was inconsolable, and the intensity of the meltdown seemed just that little bit more intense. Also this didn’t just happen on an ‘off day’ for my young child, it was every time. By the time my son was diagnosed at one and a half years of age with autism I had already given up on going to the shopping centre. It was just impossible. I did not know why this was happening and I did not know what to do…apart from just doing the shopping online.

Really the meltdowns were just the tip of the iceberg. There were very real safety concerns with my son running off or bolting, my son struggled to sit still and wait for even 10 seconds, and his lack of responsiveness to my verbal instructions rounded out some of the struggles we faced just leaving the house, let along going to a shopping centre.

When the wonderful therapist Sarah stepped into my universe just before my son’s 2nd birthday, I received the education I so desperately needed. She helped me to understand the behaviours displayed by my son in these new, unfamiliar and often chaotic environments that served to put my son into complete sensory overload. Sarah helped me to see things though his eyes – and I got it. So a strategy was adopted to address ‘Community Outings’, the term now used to describe going to the shops or anywhere in public. It has helped get us to where we are today.

It can be summed up to two words: ‘Gradual Exposure.’

We (Sarah and I) started with a walk (Kiddo in stroller) to the bank-a small, calm and quiet place. It was baby steps. First I asked the bank manager if we could ‘practise’ being in the bank. I just said I wanted to get my son used to it. She said that would be fine and so we began. We would literally walk in the front door, through the bank and then out the back door. We did not stop at all.

I did this once a week with Sarah and then a couple more times during the week with just me and Kiddo. It became our little ‘ritual’, a routine of walking to the bank. Then I ‘extended’ the trip to walking in, sitting down on a chair for 30 seconds and then walking out the back door with him. As soon as I saw my son start to ‘twitch’ a little I would get up and go. Slowly this became a few minutes…and then a good 5 minutes …until probably after about four months my son could sit in his stroller in the bank for up to 10 minutes and I was happy with that. I made sure I praised him every time he made even the smallest progress.

At 10 minutes I felt we had reached a happy ‘age appropriate’ time and I was actually able to go to the bank and do some banking. Kiddo and I then moved on to the coffee shop, the corner store, the shopping centre…then church…then birthday parties…and road trips. These outings are now in the more ‘do-able’ zone as opposed to the ‘too hard zone’ . I still always have to keep ‘age appropriate’ expectations in mind, consider which accommodations may need to be made and what supports to put in place, and sometimes Kiddo does just have a ‘bad day’ and we bail and that’s OK too.

Little by little over the years our son’s tolerance and ability to cope with being in the community has increased, and in certain new settings and scenarios he can thrive. Last weekend we went on a road trip down south and went canoeing as a family. It was magical and Kiddo just loved it!

The gradual exposure strategy has been applied to other things like feeding, toilet training, going to the doctor etc. We are currently working on visiting other people’s houses and actually sitting down there to eat a meal. It’s not happening consistently right now…but as we keep presenting our son with the opportunities and the supports needed I know he will be able to do this too one day.

This community outings project is one journey we are in for the long haul…we’ve got time…

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