“Kids have to be exposed to different things in order to develop. A child’s not going to find out he likes to play a musical instrument if you never exposed him to it…” (Dr. Temple Grandin, https://www.templegrandin.com/).
As Dr. Grandin, a person with Autism, expressed, exposure is key. Exposing children with Autism to as many experiences as possible will give them the best chance at success. This makes the work travel trainers do even more essential for children with Autism. Exposing children to navigating paths of travel, crossing streets, riding and alighting buses and other types of vehicles, and possibly most important, exposing them to social situations allowing them to build the commonly lacking skill of interacting appropriately with others will enrich their lives and help them to achieve the highest level of independence. Of course, not all children with Autism are appropriate candidates for travel training if your program goal is to ensure independent travel skills upon completion of training. Having said that, there are many skills and experiences travel trainers can provide that will enhance their lives and, for many, could lead to independent travel. As a parent of a child with Autism, a past travel trainer and transportation service provider, and a current educator on accessible transportation, I’d like to offer you a few tips on travel training children with Autism.
Tip #1: Learn about Autism and the Specific Characteristics, Traits, and Learning Abilities of your Trainee
“Wanting to be free. Wanting to be me. Trying to make people see. And accept the real me.” (Scott Lentine, https://the-art-of-autism.com/scott-lentine/)
Each child with a disability is distinct. This is never truer than with children with Autism. Each child’s Autism characteristics present themselves in different ways. Many through their lifetimes will develop coping mechanisms to better assimilate into the social and behavioral “norms” that most of us easily learned as a child. It is also the case though, that the coping method, as well as teaching method you will use to work with them, is not a one-size-fits-all. First and foremost, you should learn all you can about Autism and, more specifically, all you can about the individual characteristics and preferred methods of learning of the child you are working with. This will require not only talking to your trainee, should he/she have communication skills, but also speaking to family members and others providing services such as teachers, occupational therapists, speech therapists, etc.
Tip #2: Create an Individualized Training Plan
“If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.” (Stephen Shore, http://autismasperger.net/)
Once you have gathered all you can regarding your trainee’s characteristics, behaviors, and preferred learning methods, create a training plan and schedule which includes breaking down the training steps to the smallest level appropriate for the trainee, share this plan with the trainee, and create a “routine” of travel training. Generally speaking, it is very helpful for children with Autism to have advanced notice if their daily routine is going to be disrupted. The transition into travel training may be a bit rocky, but don’t give up. If you can build a program that becomes part of his/her routine, your chances of success increase greatly.
Be consistent and keep it simple. Consistency helps children with Autism feel secure and to know what to expect which decreases anxiety. I suggest sticking it out with a training method a bit longer than you would with other trainees as it often takes more repetition with children with Autism, before they become comfortable and truly begin learning. Also, keep your training sessions simple without overloading the trainee with information especially if the task has many small steps. Consider training the small steps separately and sequencing them together. This will help not only with learning, but give you the opportunity to celebrate smaller successes.
Many children with Autism respond very well to positive reinforcement. Reward the behaviors and actions you are hoping to see/experience. Positive reinforcement is often very effective.
Many children with Autism, even those with seemingly good communication skills, often have trouble communicating and explaining what is on their minds or asking appropriate questions. Asking simple follow-up questions and being patient may make all the difference in achieving effective communication. Also, pay close attention to nonverbal communication cues. Most people with Autism communicate in part or in whole through nonverbal cues.
Sensory issues, reactions, or behavior because of sensory stimuli often affect children with Autism. Not all sensory stimuli will be an issue, but some that may affect your trainee include loud noises, unexpected noises, hot/cold, the feeling of certain types of materials, smells, etc. If your trainee has a negative reaction to sensory stimuli, consider adding the development of strategies to cope with these stimuli to your training plan.
Don’t hesitate involving the trainee’s family, friends, and other support professionals in the development of your training plan. They likely know training methods and strategies that the trainee will respond positively to. And possibly more important, they can help you figure out what methods, strategies, or sensory stimuli to avoid.
Tip #3: Be Patient!
“I might hit developmental and societal milestones in a different order than my peers, but I am able to accomplish these small victories on my own time.” (Haley Moss, https://haleymoss.net/)
As mentioned, learning for children with Autism often takes repetition and may require extra time, more so than you spend with other trainees. Be patient. This does not necessarily mean that your training isn’t effective or that your trainee won’t be successful.
Tip #4: Appreciate the Beauty in Autism
“Everyone has a mountain to climb and autism has not been my mountain, it has been my opportunity for victory.” (Rachel Barcellona, https://rachelbarcellona.com/)
When my daughter was first diagnosed with Autism, I was scared. I felt sad. I was angry. Scared that I wouldn’t know what to do to help her. Scared that she would be treated differently than everyone else. Sad that I thought her life would be such a challenge or that she wouldn’t reach the potential that my other children would. And angry at what I’m not sure. As they say, if I only knew then what I know now. My daughter is perfect. She’s beautiful. I wouldn’t change a single thing about her. She is a better person because of the Autism. It really has been her “opportunity for victory”. We only had to learn how to best help her. We had to change, not her. And we’re all better for it.
*Please note while this article speaks specifically to working with children with Autism, many of the tips can be transferred to adults with Autism though some adults with Autism may have well developed coping methods and strongly preferred learning methods..
**All quotes are from people with Autism and were found at https://www.autismspeaks.org/life-spectrum/10-inspiring-quotes-people-autism.