Going out independently: why it’s important for autistic children
Learning to move around the community safely without an adult is an important part of development for autistic children.
That’s because it helps children develop important life skills. These include skills like:
- making decisions – for example, where to cross the road safely
- solving problems – for example, what do if their bus is late
- finding their way around – for example, how to use a map app
- using money – for example, when and how to use a card to pay for something
- interacting with people in the community – for example, who to ask for help.
This is good for children’s confidence now and for their independence in the teenage years. It can also be good for children’s self-esteem and sense of belonging.
With the right support, many autistic children can learn to go out independently. You can use many of the strategies that help all children learn skills for going out independently. These include practising, getting to know the local area and having an emergency plan. Autistic children might need extra practice and strategies.
A gradual approach to going out independently
To go out independently and safely, children need skills and confidence. It’s best to start working on this long before you let children go out by themselves. You can start by building skills step by step during everyday outings with your child. This way children can learn and practise at a pace that’s comfortable for them and you.
For example, the following steps can help your child build skills for going to a shop and buying something:
- You buy a loaf of bread from the bakery with your child beside you. You explain to your child what to say and do.
- You go to the bakery with your child. Your child asks for the bread and pays while you stand beside them.
- You go to the bakery with your child and stand outside the bakery while your child goes in, asks for the bread and pays.
- You wait at a nearby coffee shop while your child walks to the bakery and buys the bread.
You can adapt this step-by-step approach to many other activities like going to the local shopping centre or library. It can help if you use your child’s special interests. For example, if your child is very interested in trains, you could practise going to the library and borrowing a book about trains.
Plenty of opportunities to practise will help when you use this gradual approach with your child. For example, your child might be able to practise with older siblings, trusted family friends, or a friend and their parent. Community activities like scouts, drama, art or sport groups can also give your child the chance to practise these skills in different situations.
Building skills for autistic children to go out independently
As part of a gradual approach to increasing independence, you can help your child develop:
- pedestrian and road safety skills
- personal safety skills
- community social skills
- skills for using public transport
- skills for coping when things don’t go to plan.
If you lay the groundwork in these areas early, your child will have basic skills and knowledge for independence as they get older.
Pedestrian and road safety skills
Here are some ways you can help your autistic child build their pedestrian and road safety skills:
- Model safe pedestrian behaviour and describe what you’re doing. For example, ‘The red person means we can’t cross the road. We have to wait for the green person’.
- Work on judging space and distance. For example, ‘Is the car coming fast or slow?’ ‘Will we have enough space to pass the people on the footpath?’
- Practise paying attention to things like which way cars are turning and whether drivers are looking at pedestrians. It’s also important for children to know that they shouldn’t use a phone or other device while they’re near roads.
- Practise at home using toy cars, pictures or a social story before you go out.
- Draw a map of your area with your child. The map could show your house and local landmarks like your child’s school, the library and the train station.
- Use video-modelling. For example, you could watch a video about crossing the road. You could buy a video or make one yourself.
- Talk with your child about unspoken footpath rules. For example, give plenty of space to people with prams, wheelchairs or walking sticks, or let them go before you.
If your child feels comfortable, they’ll find it easier to focus on road safety. For example, if your child is sensitive to light, you could encourage them to wear a hat, hoodie or sunglasses.
Personal safety skills
You and your autistic child will come across unfamiliar people and situations when you’re out together. Here are some ways you can help your child learn what to do around unfamiliar people:
- Talk about your child’s circle of friends to help your child understand the different people in their life and how to behave around them.
- Help your child understand which people are safe to ask for help and how to recognise them – for example, police officers, security guards or store employees. You can point out these people to your child and show your child how to look for their uniforms or name tags.
- Tell your child never to get into a car or go with someone they don’t know. You could use a social story to help your child understand this situation.
- Talk with your child or use a social story to help your child understand what sexual abuse is, recognise unsafe situations and protect their personal safety.
Community social skills
Children need to develop social skills to move around the community by themselves. Social skills help children know how to act in different social situations.
You can help your child develop these skills by giving them opportunities to learn and practise. For example, you could use social stories or role play to practise what your child could say to people like shopkeepers, ticket officers at the train station, people who talk to them on the bus, charity workers asking for donations and so on.
Social skills training can help your autistic child develop these skills in a structured way. You might be able to get social skills training through your child’s preschool or school or in sessions with a psychologist, speech pathologist, occupational therapist or another health professional.
Skills for using public transport
You can help your autistic child learn skills for using public transport by travelling together regularly so it’s familiar. It’s also good to describe what you’re doing.
For example, you can show your child and describe:
- how to get tickets
- how to use timetable apps to plan their journey
- how to use map apps to track their location so they know where to get off
- where to stand to wait for a train, bus or tram
- where to sit, when to get up for another passenger and other social rules
- when to get ready to get off
- how and when to use the safety features on public transport, like CCTV areas at the train station or emergency buttons in train or tram carriages.
It might also be important to work with your child on managing the sensory aspects of public transport. This might include the following:
- What to do when it’s crowded – for example, your child could move to a less crowded area or wait for the next tram, train or bus. Or they could practise deep breathing and repeat a mantra like ‘It can’t be helped. It won’t be for long’.
- How to reduce noise – for example, your child could use noise-cancelling headphones or sit in a quiet carriage.
Skills for coping when things don’t go to plan
It’s important for your child to understand that things don’t always go to plan. For example, the bus might be late, or you and your child might get lost, lose a ticket or catch the wrong tram.
Here are some strategies that can prepare your child to handle unexpected things:
- Make a ‘space for change’ on your visual supports or written schedules. For example, leave gaps between each picture on your visual support, so you can put in other pictures or activities unexpectedly. Or use a question mark to represent uncertainty.
- Use role play to prepare for unexpected things – for example, what to say to a ticket inspector if tyour child loses their ticket.
- Teach your child to use an autism alert card. This card lets people know that your child is autistic and might need extra time or help in certain situations.
- Make sure your child has a plan if they’re not sure what to do. For example, they might call you or another trusted adult.
- Practise breathing exercises or grounding exercises with your child when they’re calm at home. When you’re out together, your child can quietly practise their favourite exercise, so they can recall it when they’re feeling stressed.
Experiences like bullying at school or on the school bus can affect children’s confidence to go out by themselves. You could try role-playing, social stories or talking with your child about what to do if they’re bullied or feel vulnerable in the community or on public transport.
Deciding whether autistic children are ready to go out independently
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to decide whether your autistic child is ready to go out independently:
- Can your child reliably control their emotions and ask for help if something unexpected or stressful happens?
- Can your child concentrate and pay attention to what’s happening around them?
- Does your child reliably follow instructions?
- Can your child work out who’s safe to talk to and who’s not safe?
- If your child has a mobile phone, do they know how to use it?
- If your child doesn’t use a mobile phone, have they memorised your phone number?
- Has your child practised doing this activity? Even if your child can walk to a place like school by themselves, they might still need to practise new routes.
- Are you confident your child can make safe decisions?
If you answered yes to most of these questions and your child feels comfortable and follows the rules, you might decide to give them more independence. You could try this extra independence with an activity your child is really keen on, like walking to a music lesson or the park.
But you might need to go back a step or give your child more practice if your child isn’t coping well with the independence they have now. You could look for practice opportunities in different situations, with different people or doing different activities.
Your child might also feel less independent at times of change, like when they start at a new school or they’re recovering from an illness. You might need to go back a step until your child feels ready to try their new skills again.
Professional support for going out independently
You could ask the professionals working with your child about how to adapt strategies to suit your child’s strengths and needs. For example, they can support you in teaching your child pedestrian skills using only 1-step and 2-step instructions. Or they can help you develop strategies if your child reacts to things like loud noises or dogs.
If you or your child don’t feel confident about developing the skills for going out alone or your child also has an intellectual disability, an occupational therapist, a travel training specialist or an orientation and mobility professional could help. A good first step is to talk to your GP or other professional working with your child.