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Help: I’m a Mom with an Autistic Child and am Afraid to Go Out

October 13, 2023

I have two boys with autism and I find myself struggling with anxiety when it comes time to leave the house with them. I feel scared and short of breath. Plus, when I leave the house by myself,  I feel anxious that I’m going to get a call from the kids’ school, my husband, the therapists, etc. I never struggled like this before. What can I do? – Ann


You are SO not alone! I have worked with many families who avoid outings entirely because it’s so stressful leaving the house with their special needs child. What you are experiencing is very common, because the truth is…being out in public, out of your safe zone, with unpredictable kids can be very scary and overwhelming. While these feelings are totally normal, this is no way to live! It’s unhealthy to carry such worry and to eliminate your community involvement because of your circumstances.

Here are some things you can try to increase the likelihood of a successful outing, and thereby reduce your anxiety:

  • Pack!

It’s important to make sure when you’re leaving for an outing that you are prepared. This means bringing food and drinks, reinforcers like electronics, toys, books, or whatever else your child may want or need, and making sure you have spare clothing or diapers in case of an accident. Here’s a sample list:

  • Get purse, keys and phone
  • Pack snacks and water
  • Pack diapers and wipes
  • Pack iPad and Elmo doll
  • If you’re outing is to a store, make a list of what you need to buy
  • Get your kids ready.
  • Have kids dressed
  • Go potty or change the diaper
  • Get shoes on
  • Prime them.
  • Tell the kids where you are going and what to expect. “Okay, we are going to Target. I need you to stay with mommy while we shop. We need to buy soap, new pants, dog treats, and paper towels.”
  • Make the outing QUICK!
  • Get in and get out. Shop with a purpose and do not stray from what you originally came there for.
  • Use a token system.

Depending on the specific issues you face when out in public with your kiddos you can create a token system to reward them for appropriate behaviors. Some examples of target behaviors might be: holding your hand, sitting in the cart, or even just tolerating being out without any tantrums. You can set a timer and every minute, two minutes, or whatever you feel is appropriate, you can give your child a token for that behavior.

Here are some token system tips:

  • Make the tokens themselves reinforcing. If your child loves sea animals, maybe the tokens can be fish or whales. If your child loves trains, use Thomas characters.
  • Set your child up for success. Don’t require him or her to get 15 tokens. Set a small number and have the child earn them quickly. (This is why starting with QUICK outings is best.)
  • Be consistent! Reinforce whenever the appropriate behavior occurs. If you skip a few or let the timer lapse without providing any reinforcement your child will become frustrated.
  • Time it just right so that the final token is delivered at the end of the outing. For example: Give all tokens except one by the time you get to the checkout. Once you pay and are on your way out, give the final token.
  • Have a big reward for when your child earns all the tokens! Make it something the child doesn’t always get. Maybe it’s a special treat or access to the iPad. Whatever it is, have it available so you can give it to your child IMMEDIATELY upon earning all the tokens.
  • Utilize social stories.

Depending on your child, a social story about outings might be helpful. You can create specific stories based on where you are going. Include all the WH questions… Who, what, where, when, why. Also be sure to include what you expect of them, and what they can earn if they show all those behaviors. Stay away from what you DON’T want them to do and only include what you DO want them to do.

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Lastly, I want to encourage you to take baby steps. Maybe start with only taking one child at a time. Or start with very close, very convenient locations. Remember that this is a huge obstacle to tackle, so you will need to attack it gradually.

I would also suggest you find a way to talk about your fears and anxieties with others. Find a support group or even a therapist who can help you manage the symptoms you’re experiencing and help you implement coping strategies. Research shows that parental stress levels greatly impact children’s stress levels. Even kids with autism pick up on anxiety and it can often create a sense of anxiety in themselves when they see a parent struggling with anxiety. While it’s completely valid to worry about what is going to go wrong when you’re not around to take care of everything, the degree to which this fear is impacting your life seems to be significant. There is help out there! Take advantage of it. Overcoming the anxiety will not only help you, but it will be beneficial for your marriage and your parenting as well.

Best of luck to you!

This article was featured in Issue 35 – Summertime Fun and Safety on the Spectrum

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