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Best Way to Introduce the Beach to a child with Autism?

In a previous ABA Works post, we discussed about developing a plan that can assist parents to have smoother trips with their children. Some of these tips, such as first learning community safety skills and preparing their child for the outing, can be beneficial when it comes to trips such as going the beach. While the beach is a fun place to be, it’s important to take into account the sensory stimulation that a beach provides, such as:

  • Sunlight
  • Sand
  • Many people
  • Different sounds
  • and waves of water!

For many who have children in the spectrum, a beach environment can be overly stimulating. I remember talking with a parent who mentioned that her child is very sensitive to sunlight and would cover his eyes. The parent mentioned that it does make it difficult to go to outings in the daytime. If you are planning to do an official trip, such as to the beach, it is best to prepare your child for what the beach will be like. In preparing your child:

  • Take small steps when practicing
  • Show visuals, such as pictures
  • Always praise and reinforce for any small step your child makes

In this blog post, we will go further into how to address and assist your child with sensory stimulation in a beach environment. Let’s start with:

  • Sunlight

When it comes to light sensitivity, first discuss with your healthcare provider because each person may have a different reaction to light. If treatment is recommended for light sensitivity, consistently follow the recommended treatment to assist your child. Check with your healthcare provider if you can also take steps to have your child accustomed to lighting, whether fluorescent or sunlight. If your healthcare provider approves that you can take steps, start in the home, and take small steps. In the home, you can use sunglasses (be sure to check if you can use regular or prescription). See how long your child tolerates wearing the sunglasses. Based on that baseline, you will assist your child to work their way in increasing the amount of time to wear the sunglasses. For example, if your child can tolerate 1 minute of wearing the sunglasses, you can create timed goals (the next goal being 1 minute and 30 seconds and the goal after being 2 minutes).

Before your child wears sunglasses, let them know that they are about to wear them and ask which two preferred activities they would like to engage in while wearing them. When suggesting the two activities, be sure that these are activities that keep their hands occupied such as arts and crafts, Play-Doh, kinetic sand, and more. During this goal and the selected activity, you must remain present with your child to redirect their hands away from the sunglasses. With one of my clients, who was wearing ankle weights, when I noticed that he was about to reach for the weights I immediately redirected him back to our Play-Doh activity by saying, “Oh hey! Let’s do this.” I placed another Play-Doh in his other hand, and we started rolling our two Play-Dohs on the table. When he reached his timed goal, I praised him saying, “Wow! Nice job wearing the weights. What should we do next?” After reaching the timed goal, I let my client decide if he wanted to continue wearing the weights or take them off.

This concept also applies to wearing the sunglasses.

Once your child has accomplished their overall goal and is able to generalize this in different areas of the home, work on generalizing wearing sunglasses outside.

Let’s talk about:

  • Sand

For beach sand, you may need to bring your child to a practice outing close to the beach and bring the sand to them. The reason why you would need to bring the beach sand to them is because beach sand has a rougher texture whereas play-sand has a more delicate texture. Slowly let your child be accustomed to the beach sand by letting them touch it, gently putting sand on their feet, and gently rubbing it on their skin. This may take multiple practice beach outings. Plan on time you can set aside to do these practice outings and patiently let your child get familiarized to the beach sand with your help.

  • Many people and different sounds

It may be good to bring a tent or umbrella, so your child has less stimulation from other people and what happens around them. You can also bring a hat, which helps to protect for the sun and have less input from the environment around your child. If your child likes to listen to soothing music, you can turn some gentle music on.

  • Water

Once your child tolerates the beach sand, let them approach the water at their own pace. If you have a young child and you notice them touch the water with their toes, cheer and praise them like it’s a party. Be playful with this step, especially for young children. For older children, join them, touch the water with your toes, and praise them for taking the step.

If the first trip to the beach is overwhelming, it’s ok to come back at a different time. Don’t give up and know that your child will get there. Getting accustomed to a new environment takes time and practice.

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