Going out independently: why it’s important for autistic teenagers
Going out to socialise, explore, learn and have fun safely without an adult is an important part of your teenage child’s journey towards independent adulthood.
It’s good for autistic teenagers to go out without an adult when they’re ready. It helps them build life skills like:
- navigation skills – for example, by practising how to get to places using a map or app
- problem-solving skills – for example, by working out what to do when the bus is late
- decision-making skills – for example, by planning how to spend a day in town.
Going out independently also:
- promotes good mental health – for example, independence can be good for teenage confidence, self-esteem and sense of belonging
- encourages physical activity – for example, teenagers who walk, bike or take public transport to school tend to be more physically active than teenagers who are driven
- builds community connections – for example, teenagers might say hello to people they know at the local shops or meet people at a local chess club.
A gradual approach to going out independently
Autistic teenagers need to learn skills gradually. It’s important to start preparing autistic children to go out independently well before the teenage years.
Once autistic teenagers are more independent and ready to go out on their own, you can keep building their independence through gradual steps, at a pace that’s comfortable for both of you.
For example, your child might gradually progress through the following steps to go to youth group by themselves:
- You catch the bus together to youth group. You look at the timetable together and plan the trip, including the bus number, arrival time, connections and walking routes.
- When you catch the bus, go over what your child needs to do – for example, where to wait, how to pay, where to sit, how to track where they’re going with a map app, which landmark to look for so they know where to get off, and what to do if they miss their stop. Rehearse what to say to the bus driver or a transit inspector.
- Next time, you travel with your child but sit some distance away, so your child can make their own decisions.
- When you and your child are feeling confident, your child catches the bus to youth group by themselves.
In this example, you gradually increase your child’s independence by adjusting how they travel. You can adapt this example to other situations, like going shopping, going to the beach, cricket or football, and so on.
Each time your child takes a new route, help your child plan the route and practise it together first.
Look for opportunities for your child to practise being independent. For example, if you live in a busy neighbourhood where it’s difficult for your child to go out independently, your child could practise somewhere else, perhaps when you’re on holiday or visiting friends. Your child could also practise by going out with a trusted friend.
Deciding whether autistic teenagers are ready for more independence
As your child goes through the teenage years, your child might want more independence, or you might want or need your child to be able to go out independently. For example, you might want your child to walk home from school.
There are some questions you can ask when you’re deciding whether teenagers are ready to go out independently. These include the following:
- Is your child going somewhere that you consider safe?
- Does your child have a mobile phone to contact you and use for navigation?
- Does your child know what to do if they get lost?
For autistic teenagers, there are some extra questions to think about and discuss:
- Is your child motivated? If your child has a goal and a reason to go out independently, they’ll be more motivated to learn the steps.
- Is it the right time? Going out independently can be challenging because it needs planning, involves social demands and can be an intense sensory experience. If your child is learning skills and steps for going out, it’s best to find a time when your child isn’t managing other new challenges or experiences.
- Can your child manage unwanted attention? For example, can your child respond politely to other passengers wanting to chat, say no to people asking for money or selling things, or ignore people who are teasing them?
- Can your child stay calm if something doesn’t go to plan? If they’re calm, they’ll be able to phone you, or ask for help from a shop assistant, station attendant or police officer.
If you answered yes to most or all of these questions and your child feels comfortable and follows the rules, your child might be ready for more independence.
But if you think your child needs to build more skills, they aren’t coping well or you’re not confident, your child might need more practice. Or you might need to move their independence back a step.
Experiences like bullying at school or on the school bus can affect teenagers’ confidence to go out by themselves. Try role-playing what your child could do if they’re bullied or feel vulnerable in the community or on public transport.
Looking after themselves when they go out independently: autistic teenagers
These strategies can help autistic teenagers look after themselves and stay safe when they’re out independently:
- Travel at times when it’s less crowded, like out of peak hour. This can reduce the social demands of crowded public transport or the risk of being accidentally touched.
- Use headphones if your child finds public transport too noisy. This can also act as a signal to other passengers that your child isn’t interested in social conversation.
- Use an autism alert card. This can help your child communicate when they’re anxious. It can also help people understand if your child is having difficulty coping in a stressful situation.
- Pay attention to the environment. Your child should stick to well-lit areas with plenty of people around. And they should take off their headphones and look around when crossing the street.
- Use breathing exercises or grounding exercises to stay calm. If your child practises these exercises when they’re calm at home, they’ll be better able to recall them when they’re feeling stressed.
Rules for autistic teenagers going out independently
Rules can help you be clear about what is and isn’t negotiable with your child’s independence. Rules can also help your child stay safe and understand the limits you’ve set.
But in the teenage years, it’s important to involve your child in making rules. This helps your child understand why the rules are important. It also means you can adjust the rules to suit your child’s development and understanding.
It’s best to explain rules by using examples, or you could create social stories for different scenarios. For example:
- Who your child needs to be with – for example, when you go to the cinema, you must stay with your friend to be safe.
- How your child can travel – for example, when you go to Simon’s house, you need to take public transport instead of walking because it’s too far to walk.
- When your child needs to contact you and how – for example, if you miss your bus or you want to go to a friend’s house after school, you need to call me first so I know where you are.
- What to do if your child feels they’re in danger – for example, if you think someone is following you, go to a busy area and tell someone safe what’s happening. If you can’t find a busy area, call me on your phone.
Once the rules are in place, apply them consistently – but assess them regularly as your child develops. If you monitor how well your child is handling their independence, you’ll know when the rules need adjusting.
When things go wrong: emergency plans for autistic teenagers
If your child is going out by themselves, you and your child need to develop plans for what to do if there’s an emergency or something unexpected happens. For example:
- Make sure your child’s phone has your landline, mobile number and other emergency contacts programmed into it. Let your child know that they can call you at any time, in any condition, if they or their friends need your help.
- Encourage your child to keep their phone in a secure pocket, rather than a bag, if possible.
- Make sure your child has memorised your phone number and home address in case they lose their phone or it runs out of battery.
- Make sure your child has enough money for an emergency taxi ride home.
It’s also important for your child to practise what to do in unexpected or emergency situations like missing the bus, losing their wallet or ticket, having a train cancelled or delayed, or running out of phone battery. You could also develop social stories for each scenario.
If your child does have a difficult experience when they’re out by themselves, it might affect their confidence. Your child might need to practise going out with family to build up their confidence again.
Professional support for going out independently
With the right support, many autistic teenagers can learn to go 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 could help you develop social stories or visual schedules for various travel or other scenarios.
If your child doesn’t feel confident about developing the skills for going out alone or they also have 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.