Returning to Shared Spaces in Community

Returning to shared public space within the community after a long period of isolation at home will be challenging for some children and young people with autism.  There will be new Public Health guidelines in place which the child or young person is not familiar with.  

Because the child or young person has spent a significant period of time in predictable and familiar surroundings, exposure to sensory input, social contact from others (albeit from a distance) and new routines will need consideration and planning to ensure the child or young person’s transition back into shared community space is positive and successful.

Before planning outings into shared spaces in the community for the child or young person with autism, it is important that the parent or professional firstly manages their own anxiety to ensure they feel calm and confident about going out again.

It is also very important to manage and prevent a build-up of anxiety for the child or young person therefore preparation for outings is recommended. 

Preparing in Advance for Returning to A Shared Space in the Community

It is recommended to plan and visually outline what will be expected in community spaces. Important things to consider when preparing to visit places in the community such as a play park, a shopping centre or a leisure centre include:

Use a calendar- if the child or young person can relate to a calendar highlight the day when the community outing will take place.  Keep the calendar displayed and refer back to it daily on the lead up to the outing.

Use a visual schedule- to communicate what time of the day the outing will take place.  The style of communication system used by each child or young person will be unique to them but is likely to be one of the following: an Object, Photo, Symbol or Written Word Schedule which identifies the order in which things will happen.

Click here for information on Types of Schedules
Click here for an example of Part Day Daily Visual Schedule using symbol and word

Calming activities-  include these on the daily schedule before and after the outing to the shared space in the community.  As the outing may be an intense sensory and emotionally challenging experience for the child or young person with autism including calming activities which have a regulating effect is recommended. Click here for Calming Activities 

Wearing of PPE- some people may be wearing masks or a face visor.  This may seem unusual and may frighten the child or young person.  It is important to explain why people are wearing PPE and that their faces remain the same underneath the PPE. Wearing A Mask social narrative.  Face Mask Exemption Cards

Some children and young people with autism may feel extremely uncomfortable wearing a mask due to heightened tactile sensitivities or a feeling of claustrophobia.  Autistic people are exempt from wearing face masks if the covering causes distress.  AsIAm have created a letter which the person can show to explain why a face covering is not being worn.  The letter can be found at this link: AsIAm Letter regarding Face Coverings

Other children and young people with autism may feel safer and more confident wearing a mask and may want to adhere to the rules.  They may therefore wish to overcome their tactile sensitivities and fears about the mask so so that they can wear one in public places. A child or young person can be supported in gradually building tolerance for wearing a mask through a desensitisation programme, as set out in these links:

Click here for Mask Desensitisation Younger Child

Click here for Mask Desensitisation Older Child

Using Hand Sanitisers- hand sanitisers come in many different forms across varying shops etc.  Some are sprays and some have a strong scent.  Some autistic people may find it difficult to tolerate these variations due to sensory sensitivities and so it may be useful to identify a hand sanitiser which they prefer, and then carry this for personal use when going to shops and other shared spaces.

Keeping a safe distance from others. At present, the public health advice is to keep a two-metre distance.  It is a good idea to explain what this looks like and to practise doing this at home before you go out to shared public places.  Explaining why this is important is also recommended. Click here for social narrative on Social Distancing

Waiting in line for my turn. If you are visiting a playpark or shop, it is possible there may be a queue to facilitate the management of social distancing. Practising waiting in line for your turn prior to going out is recommended as this may be helpful to aid understanding and to lower anxiety when out and waiting to enter a shared space in the community.  Use a visual support to show the child or young person that they must wait for their turn but that their turn will come. Click here for Waiting and queuing in Mcdonalds

AsIAm have created a letter which can be shown to retailers requesting a dispensation when it comes to queuing outside retail outlets.  The letter can be found at this link: AsIAm Letter for Retailers

I need a break. Prepare the child or young person in advance to communicate if they are starting to feel overwhelmed and need to leave the shared community setting.  This could be used in conjunction with The Incredible 5-Point Scale.

Click here for I Need A Break tokens
Click here for Feelings Speedometer
Click here for My Feelings Thermometer

Managing Anxiety and Emotional Regulation

Having portable visual supports that the child or young person is familiar with and have practised using before accessing a shared space in the community is recommended for managing anxiety and emotional regulation.

If the child or young person has difficulty recognising when they are feeling overwhelmed or dysregulated the parent or professional will need to observe them for the indicators which may be subtle or obvious.  As each child or young person with autism is unique, the supporting adult responsible for managing changes back into shared community spaces should use their knowledge of the autistic child or young person to assess and evaluate how they are presenting. Common indicators may include increased repetitive behaviours, vocalisations or pacing. 

Click here for further information on Managing Anxiety for Autistic children and young people. 

First/Then visual schedule A small portable First/Then or First/Then/Next visual schedule can be effective in helping the child or young person transition to an activity or space or if dysregulated in the shared community space, back to the car for regulation time.

If using the First/Then schedule to transition into an activity or shared space, using an object associated with the activity or shared space may help the child or young person understand what they are transitioning into. Click here for First/Then

Click here for First/Then/Next

Take a gradual approach.  The parent or professional will be the best judge of what the child or young person can successfully cope with, where to go and how long to spend there.  This approach will ensure a positive experience for everyone and instil confidence for future outings in shared community spaces. Some helpful tips on taking a gradual approach may include:

  • Walking or driving past the public place on a day before the first outing
  • Visiting for a shorter period on the first attempt
  • Gradually extending or building up time with each successful trip

Read previous: ← Returning to School