How do I get my child with autism to participate in activities outside of school if he or she doesn’t want to?


How do I get my child with autism to participate in activities outside of school if he or she doesn’t want to?  

The last email incited a whole range of comments and questions. Be sure to go back and check it out if you haven’t already!

The most common question I received was:

How do I get my child with autism to participate in activities outside of school if he or she doesn’t want to? 

First of all, a blog can only touch on the answer to this question. The information below is meant to spark reflection, discussion and hopefully the motivation to make necessary changes.

Autism, by its very nature, often imposes a dislike for anything new, unknown and unfamiliar. The autistic brain is wired for sameness and it struggles to think flexibly and to see alternatives. So, it isn’t that your child is somehow odd because he or she refuses to join hockey, dance, T ball, or other clubs. It is certainly not a given that children with autism prefer to be socially isolated and should be allowed to ‘escape’ from the social world after school hours. Autism predisposes our kids to keep doing something that is safe, familiar and comfortable.

Let’s be honest, many of us have to push ourselves a little to try something new or participate in an activity that we have never done. But, for those who live with autism, a few encouraging words or the promise of a reward will rarely be enticing enough. As harsh as it sounds, too often, it is just easier for parents to give in to autism and permit our children to succumb to its restrictive grip. Getting our children to join a group, try an activity or do something unfamiliar will likely demand digging deep into our energy, patience and creative reservoirs. And, at the end of a work day – that may seem an impossible feat.

But, ask yourself this: If you don’t take the lead and you don’t find the inner resources to set the bar high for your children, how much harder will it be as your child grows physically bigger and more set in his or her ways? Having taught high school students with severe autism, I can promise you that changing patterns of behaviour and encouraging new experiences does not get easier!

Allowing our children (of any age) to remain cocooned in the world of videos, television, and/or online gaming will rob them of opportunities to discover things they didn’t know they liked and people with whom they may develop friendships. Doing so, will steal chances for our kids to develop self -confidence, social skills and life skills. Our kids with autism do need a quiet break after surviving the social, mental, physical demands that a day at school imposes on them. This ‘time out’ is critical for many individuals with autism in order to recharge their batteries so to speak. However, what is NOT helpful is a whole evening of seclusion, especially if it is void of exercise/movement and fresh air.

This begs the question:

How do I get my child with autism to participate in activities outside of school if he doesn’t want to?

The following are a few thoughts to begin reflection:

  1. Don’t wait for the child to show interest.

    Take the lead and look for groups, activities, and experiences in your community. Create them if necessary! In the same way, don’t wait for your child to agree to an activity. This agreement may never happen because it requires resources that are not always available to our kids with autism.

  2. Find a way to logically connect the activity to a realistic goal the child might have.

    Use the child’s interests as leverage if possible. For example, if your child wants food or drink from a restaurant or convenience store, don’t make the purchase yourself. Teach him what to say, how to pay and ‘shadow’ the interaction. But remember, shadows don’t take over. 😊 If he loves hockey stats, putting on a pair of skates might be logical.

  3. Provide choice where possible so that the child has some sense of autonomy in the situation.

    For example, do you want me to stand behind you or beside you? Do you want to wear your running shoes or your sandals? Will I wait in the car or at the door? Will you sit in the circle or near the circle?

  4. Provide written or picture cues as to the steps that will happen, what to do and/or what to say.

    Giving support by way of pictures and/or written words provide a permanent reference about what is going to happen, giving kids the confidence they need to venture into the unknown. Reassure, provide visual support of what will happen first, next and then. Be sure to make the ‘then’ step something the child will look forward to.

  5. Be prepared to weather the emotional storm that may come your way when you insist that something is going to happen.

    I don’t mean that you should be cold, unfeeling or cruel. However, giving in to a child’s crocodile tears and emotional pleas will only ensure that these are ramped up to a greater degree next time you try to impose your expectations. Use the visual supports mentioned in step #3.

  6. Above all, BE CALM, GENTLE and FIRM.

    The only thing worse than a child who is emotionally losing control, is a child AND an adult both out of control. Change is scary, and it needs to materialize in small steps, with loads of emotional and physical support available as needed.

Leading our children with autism to try new things, take risks and venture into the unfamiliar will often generate a parenting challenge. We have a choice: acquiesce or raise our expectations for our child. Taking the latter approach sends a strong message to our children that we believe in their potential. This message becomes internalized over time, leading to the development of an adult who is able to face fear and adversity, trust in themselves to do what is difficult and become all they are capable of being. We owe this to our kids.

As always, please share this post with anyone you know who is struggling with a child with autism. 

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