For many children and young people on the Spectrum, even when they really want to try something new their anxieties often get in the way. The internal pressure to succeed coupled with the fact that many new activities also involve meeting new people, going to new places and learning new routines means that the idea often becomes so overwhelming that the reality of going never takes place.
But as a parent there are things we can do to help them take that first step of walking through the door:
Find an activity they genuinely want to try.
Listen carefully as they talk about new skills they would like to learn, and pay attention to new interests that are emerging. Then think about how you could tie in a new activity, whether that’s singing lessons for lovers of The Voice, cookery lessons for a Masterchef fan, or coding sessions for those who love their technology. If your child is genuinely invested in and sees the point in an activity it will vastly increase their chances of walking through the door. Tie it into their special interests and those anxiety busting endorphins really will help make sure that happens.
Work closely with group leaders
Just like success in school often relies on developing good relationships with teachers and other school staff, taking time to meet and talk to the leaders of the groups your child wants to attend can be invaluable. It allows you time to assess their willingness to be adaptable, before your child is put in a new situation. But it also gives you the chance to give them the skills and strategies which will give your child the best chance of success.
Arrange a visit to the venue beforehand
Giving your child a chance to visit the venue of a new activity before the activity takes place, helps to reduce the levels of anxiety they feel about going on the day. This could include visiting the place a sports activity is held, or going for a look around a cafe where they will later have a meal. For activities where this is impossible – such as a visit to a theme park, zoo, or venue too far away from home – take a look at their website or at videos on YouTube to give them a virtual visit.
Give them a way out
Going somewhere new for the first time is often easier for young people if they feel like they can leave if it becomes too much. Using 5 point scales, code words or help cards can all be a great way to achieve this. Make sure you respond quickly if they ask to leave or ask to have some time out as this will increase their confidence that you will be there to rescue them if a difficult situation arises on a future trip out.
Consider waiting in close proximity
If children are attending activities independently, knowing that you are waiting nearby can often be really helpful. It means they can reach out to you more quickly if a problem arises but it also gives them the security of the familiar. For younger children this might mean waiting in the venue itself, but older children may prefer you to wait in the car outside or a nearby cafe. Looking the same as their peers becomes increasingly important to young people as they grow older, but that doesn’t mean that a discrete safety net isn’t appreciated.
Think about familiarity
When trying something new adding touches of the familiar can make a big difference. For some young people confidence can be gained from wearing their favourite clothing or taking along a toy or other object with them. For others that confidence is best achieved by arranging to attend an activity alongside a friend or sibling. The key is to give equal weighting in discussions to the things that will be the same as well as the things that will be different.
Shift the focus
Making the focus of the new activity about someone other than your child can be really important for some young people, especially those with Pathological Demand Avoidance. Whether you opt to make the activity about helping out a friend, making sibling more comfortable or giving a Braveling a new experience- the key is to allow your child to realise that it’s an activity where they will be able to relax and be themselves.
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