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The community setting offers many opportunities for learning, but it is also a potential bomb of sensory overload for the person with autism. Understanding these challenges can help parents and therapists deal with negative behaviors that may occur.
Consider a trip to a large retail store. Most people can block out the ambient noise, smells, and visual stimuli. But for someone with sensory issues, this is a serious challenge. He has to sort through a plethora of voices and beeps and rattles which may wreak havoc on his nerves. He is also bombarded with images, products, unfamiliar faces, and bright lighting. The brain of a person with autism is not wired to determine which sensory stimuli should be ignored. Waiting in line may also be a painful experience, because it seems to serve no purpose. The child may feel restrained and uncomfortable. The frustration may be magnified by an inability to communicate or release these feelings. The child does not know what to expect and he does not know what is expected of him.
The easiest solution to this problem is not necessarily the best, though. To never expose the child with autism to a public setting is denying him an opportunity to interact with the community. However, taking steps prior to the errand can ensure smooth sailing. This is an ideal opportunity to write a social story tailor made to the situation. Using pictures and words, provide a step-by-step list of what the errand will entail. For example, where you are going, how you will get there, and what to expect when there. Also include behavior expectations for the person. In addition, alerting the individual of potential sensory issues in advance can help eliminate the fear of the unknown and put them more at ease. It is also useful to bring objects, such as fidget toys, which can occupy their interest while on the errand, in addition to providing a controlled sensory input. If noise is a major issue, ear plugs or headphones with music may be helpful.
Although it may seem daunting to a parent or caregiver to take these steps everytime they go out in public with their child, prevention is the best cure. As the individual with autism becomes familiar with these expeditions, he will not need to be prepped as thoroughly every time.