By: Rebecca Hunt, Therapy Assistant and Child Educator, Autism Swim
The beach is a great place to spend the weekend or afternoons with the family during the summer months. However, the beach environment has a multitude of sensory experiences that can be overwhelming for children with autism (ASD):
- The different textures we must encounter just to get to the water (bitumen, concrete, grass, board walks and sand);
- The waves that can roll, surge and crash;
- The sun can glare, burn or disappear in the shifting sunlight patterns; and
- All the while there is an abundance of sounds at the beach; such as sand squeaking, waves crashing, birds chirping, people in all emotions, different languages being spoken, lifeguards with their whistles, yelling over the microphone, patrolling on their buggies, jet skis and the wind…
My top tips for preparing your child for the sensory experiences of the beach focuses on familiarisation of the environment: visually, auditorily, textually, and having an effective retreat option.
1. Using Social Stories and YouTube.
Social Stories are a great way for children with ASD to have a visual introduction of a new environment and perhaps, some understanding of what they might experience in this environment. The Social Story could include:
- How you get to the beach?
- What is at the beach?
- What we wear to the beach?
- What we do at the beach?
This is also a fantastic place to address water safety, for example a page in their Social Story could include ‘Mum and I always go into the water together. I never go into the water alone’.
Review the Social Story at the same time each day, possibly opening a discussion about what the experience will be like. This can alleviate some anxiety about the beach environment for your child.
Search YouTube for clips about your local beach. I found this great one about Coogee Beach. It shows the surrounding park as well as the sand and water. It even has fitting sounds of the environment, waves, seagulls and different people.
2. Sand Preparation.
Sand on hands, sand on feet, sand on my body… These can all be different and challenging experiences for children with ASD. You might have to start by working towards touching the sand with a finger, to grabbing a handful of sand, scrunching toes in the sand or gently rubbing sand on legs and tummies to understand its feeling. It’s important to show your child that to remove this feel (if it gets too much), that we can just wash it off with water.
By taking it slow in a neutral environment) possibly some sand in your backyard and at a pace your child is calm with), they will become comfortable with sand in time. A further step could be going to a park that has a sand area and watching other children enjoy the experience and then, progressing to your child moving into the sand area too. Alternatively, this is another area that YouTube clips can assist with. Watch a clip of children enjoying themselves in the sand to help prepare your child for their own experience in the sand. I found a wonderful clip with two children having fun playing in the sand.
3. Pop-up Beach Tent.
No matter how much we prepare sometimes it can all be too overwhelming, and we just need a retreat. Bring a pop-up tent to the beach; it doesn’t need to be fancy, just a place where your child can have a sensory break from the sand under their feet and the visual stimulation happening around them. Kmart has a great one for $12.
Put together a few items that provide sensory relief to your child (fidget toys, chewing gum, noise -cancelling headphones) to make it a place of calming regulation.
Set up the beach tent in the house or backyard so your child can become accustomed to the tent, know it’s a retreat from overstimulation, and be able to recognise a familiar safe zone when they are at the beach. Have regular discussions about the purpose of the tent, highlighting the calming feeling they gain from being in the tent with their items, demonstrate its ease of access for your child, and include it and the sensory items in your child’s beach Social Story.
There are many transitions that your child goes through when at the beach such as, car to beach, sand activities to water, water play to sand and packing up and moving back to the car. Each transition is different and they can happen so frequently, it’s important to have a variety of strategies at your disposal.
- Give notice when transitions are approaching, 10 min, 5 min, 3 min notices. For many children with ASD, the ability to shift from one activity to another requires a degree of flexible thinking, which may prove to be difficult for some children in this environment.
- Give choices to your child so they gain a sense of control over the transition. This could be “Sam, we are going in the car in 5 minutes. You can take one toy, which will you take?”. It’s also equally important to avoid letting your child think there is a choice when there is none, for example, “Sam, do you want to pack up your sand buckets now?”, when in the end, they need to do it.
- Give your child something to look forward to after the transition. If the transition is from the water to sand activities, give your child their favourite snack once they have moved to the sand. If you are transitioning from the beach to home, talk about a favourite activity that you will do at home when you get there.