Pushing Our Special Needs Child Out of Her Comfort Zone is the Best Thing We Ever Did For Our Family

Sorry, we won’t be able to come. Our daughter doesn’t deal well with movie theatres.

Sorry, we can’t come. Our son only eats macaroni and cheese.

Sorry, he can’t go there. Our son would freak out if we:

•    Took him to the Zoo
•    Took him to an amusement park
•    Put him in the swimming pool
•    Pushed him on a swing
•    Put him in the sandbox
•    Took him to the park
•    Took him to that festival
•    Took him to the grocery store
•    Took him to see Santa
•    Took him anywhere outside of his comfort zone

Is your world limited by what your child will or will not do, eat, like or tolerate?

Yea, mine was too.

For a long time we didn’t do a lot of things, because our daughter might have a melt down and it was just easier to stay home.
Then one of her autism specialists at school pointed out to us that she couldn’t stay at home forever. The best way for her to learn how to live in the world was for us to get her out in it.

So we started small.

We chose activities she liked to do at home and just moved them to a new venue. She loved to swing so we took her to a local park. But we went early in the morning when the park was almost always empty. Then she didn’t have to take turns or wait in line.  We actually started going to the park a lot. Gradually she got used to the noise of the other kids and learned how to wait in line for her beloved swing.

We chose activities we could modify to fit her sensory special needs. For example, we would go to the zoo, but again we went early in the morning when the crowds were smaller and she could run if she needed to. We didn’t ride on the farm tractor as it was too loud. If she wanted to go to the bird show we would sit in the back on the end so we could leave if she needed to. Gradually as she became more familiar with the zoo she got comfortable going when it was crowded and finally was comfortable participating in some of their special events.

We practiced going places until we had a routine that allowed her to feel comfortable with trying new things.  Our routine looked like this:

1.    Mention where we want to go on Wednesday – she always said NO!
2.    Look at photos of where we want to go on Thursday – usually still saying no
3.    Plan what we will take in the car to keep her busy (with her helping to plan) on Friday – she usually is okay with it, but not enthusiastic
4.    Pack a backpack and visit the event/location on Saturday – still not thrilled but we went anyway
5.    Return home – all the way home she smiles and talks about how great it was

Now that our daughter is a teen, we no longer have to follow this method. She is picking places and events that she wants to try and we are the ones saying NO.  But we usually come around to her way of thinking. As a family we try to do something she picks about once a month, rather than every week.

All of that hard work to push her outside of her comfort zone has paid off.

She discovered that she loves Zip lines when she was on a trip with her grandpa. She can hardly wait to jump out of an airplane when she turns 18. (I am still not comfortable with that one, but I have a couple of years to get used to the idea.) She loves to make us go to Anime Conventions and has discovered a world she can’t wait to explore – as long as she can live at home.

Yep, she has no plans to move out, ever. In fact we expect her younger sister to move out before she does – though that may change. We are all comfortable with the idea that she becomes independent at a later age than her peers. It is far more important to us that she is happy with who she is.

Here are some tips to help you and your family push outside the comfort zone:

•    Start small
•    Start with where they are as far as sensory issues – if they aren’t ready for a concert, don’t go.
•    Choose places and activities that allow for sensory issues
•    Bring sensory modifications such as headphones to be used when needed
•    Find sensory friendly events in your area – this is a growing national trend
•    Go early to avoid crowds and noise and waiting
•    Let them have some input on choosing outings
•    Encourage them to try participating in school events
•    Don’t let others tell you what your child ‘should’ enjoy doing
These tips are just a start. You know your child better than anyone and you know what they are most likely to enjoy.


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Dawn Marcotte
Dawn Marcotte created ASD-DR.com to help autistic teens be empowered to make choices about life after high school. It provides a searchable database of over 300 colleges with autism support programs and advice from autistic college students.