Going for a walk on a crisp winter morning or warm summer evening may sound like a lovely and simple way for a family to spend some quality time together. But for many families with a child with autism this “simple” activity can prove very difficult. Some children may display behaviours that challenge when leaving the house or getting out of the car, therefore parents may keep using a buggy for longer, needing specially adapted ones or a wheelchair as the child gets older or for some they feel they have to avoid going out and stay largely housebound. Being able to walk with an adult is an important skill for a child to learn to be able to access the community.
The good news is that through using the science of Applied Behaviour Analysis we can often teach children and adolescents to work appropriately when out in the community. We can achieve this by breaking down the skills needed and providing rewards for the appropriate behaviours. Often the walking programme would begin in the house, by teaching the child to walk alongside their therapist or parent around a room. A clear instruction to ‘Walk with me’ would be given. The adult then provides rewards to the child as they walk along next to the adult. The walking program is then extended to include the child walking around the house with the adult and then in the garden.
Careful consideration of the reward that will be used for walking needs to occur; you need a reward that is easy to take out with you into the community and can be delivered quickly and multiple times. Highly preferred edibles that can be delivered frequently such as raisins or popcorn work well as rewards for this programme.
When the program is ready to be generalised into the community, safety should be carefully considered. We may need to teach a child to tolerate hand holding before going out into the community, or for older children linking arms may be more appropriate. If these are initially required, we will still eventually want to target the child being able to walk independently next to an adult in the community.
An assessment of the potential behaviours that the child could exhibit in the community, such as running off, should be conducted and appropriate safety measures put in place. You will need to consider safe places within the community where you can begin the walking program, ideally these should be fenced locations, with no roads near. You will also need to consider how many adults you need to have with you to ensure the child’s safety, for example do you need to have adults located in different places in case the child was to run. These safety considerations should never be overlooked, appropriate safety measures should always be put in place.
When out in the community, we would systematically increase the distance of the walk and also systematically fade the delivery of rewards. As well as going for a walk we may also be targeting walking around shops, walking along new routes and teaching road safety skills.
With the right programming, going for a walk can become an enjoyable activity for everyone!
Take a read of the blog post by Ben and Finlay’s parents which mentions how a walking program contributed to them having the best Christmas yet!