Mark Gingrass and two kids at the grand canyon area climbing

Outdoors with Children on the Spectrum

Working with children with autism outdoors can be a rewarding and beneficial experience for both the child and the caregiver. Being in nature can provide a sense of calm and tranquility for children with autism, who may often struggle with sensory overload in indoor environments. Additionally, outdoor activities promote physical activity, social interaction, and cognitive development.

Sensory Overload

Sensory overload is a condition in which one or more of the body’s senses are overwhelmed by external stimuli. This can happen to anyone, but it is widespread in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other sensory processing disorders. In my friend’s daughter’s case, she grabs both hands in an awkward position and paces back and forth. Both hands are up by her chin, clenched together.

There are many other examples of sensory overload that include:

  • Visual overstimulation: Bright lights, flashing lights, or busy patterns can be overwhelming for some individuals with autism. They may find it difficult to focus or concentrate in environments with many visual stimuli.
  • Auditory overstimulation: Loud noises, such as traffic or construction, can be overwhelming for some individuals with autism. They may be sensitive to certain sounds or find it challenging to filter background noise.
  • Tactile overstimulation: Some individuals with autism may be sensitive to certain textures or fabrics. They may find it uncomfortable to wear certain clothes or be touched in specific ways.
  • Olfactory overstimulation: Strong smells, such as perfumes or cleaning products, can be overwhelming for some individuals with autism. They may be sensitive to certain scents or challenging to filter out background smells.
  • Gustatory overstimulation: Some individuals with autism may be sensitive to specific tastes or textures of food. They may have trouble eating certain foods or find eating challenging in noisy or crowded environments.

It’s important to note that everyone’s experience with sensory overload can be different, and what may be overwhelming for one person may not be for another. It’s important to understand that each child with autism is unique, and their triggers and sensitivities may vary.

When working with children with autism outdoors, remember that every child is unique and may have different needs and preferences. Some children may enjoy physical activities such as hiking or biking, while others may prefer more passive activities such as bird watching or gardening. Take the time to get to know the child and their interests to ensure that the outdoor activities are enjoyable and meaningful for them.

Children with autism can be sensitive to noise, light, and temperature and may have difficulty processing multiple stimuli simultaneously. Be mindful of this and create a peaceful and safe environment for the child. For example, they avoid loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells and provide a quiet space for the child to rest if needed. Know how busy the trail system is before you get there. One trick my friend uses is to show them YouTube videos of the exact trail they are about to hike. This way, they are already used to seeing it.

Coping with Sensory Overload

Coping with sensory overloading in children with autism can be a challenging task, but there are several strategies that caregivers can use to help reduce the child’s discomfort and distress.

  1. Create a sensory-friendly environment: Caregivers can create a calm and peaceful environment by controlling the lighting, temperature, and noise level and, for example, using soft lighting, keeping the room at a comfortable temperature, and minimizing unnecessary noise.
  2. Prepare the child for changes in the environment: Children with autism may have difficulty adjusting to new backdrops or changes in routine. Caregivers can prepare the child by giving them warnings and information about what to expect.
  3. Use sensory tools: Sensory tools such as noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets, or fidget toys can help reduce the child’s discomfort and distress. Sensory tools should be chosen based on the child’s needs and preferences.
  4. Give the child a break: If they become overwhelmed, caregivers can provide them with a quiet space to rest and regain their composure. This can be a designated room or an area outside.
  5. Use mindfulness and relaxation techniques: These techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation, can help the child calm their body and mind.
  6. Incorporate sensory-friendly activities: Caregivers can also include activities that are specifically designed to be sensory-friendly, such as sensory-based art, music, or movement activities.
  7. Consult with a therapist: A therapist can help caregivers develop a plan to address the child’s specific sensory needs and provide guidance on how to support the child best.
Mark Gingrass and two kids at the grand canyon area climbing

It’s important to remember that coping with sensory overload is a process, and it may take time for the child to learn how to manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Caregivers should be patient and understanding, continuously assess the child’s needs and preferences and adapt the strategies accordingly.

Social Interaction Outdoors

Social interaction is another area where outdoor activities can benefit children with autism. Many outdoor activities require teamwork and cooperation, which can help children with autism develop social skills and improve their communication skills. Nature-based activities such as hiking or gardening also provide opportunities for children to learn about the natural world and develop an appreciation for the environment. You may even apply what they learn outdoors to their schoolwork!

Finally, outdoor activities can be a great way to promote cognitive development in children with autism. Activities such as hiking can help children with autism develop problem-solving skills, spatial awareness, and memory. Additionally, many outdoor activities require children to pay attention to their surroundings and be aware of their actions, which can help improve their focus and concentration.

Caregivers, be aware of your Children at all Times

When hiking with a child, it is essential to ensure their safety and prevent them from getting too close to the edge of a cliff or steep drop-off. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Keep a close eye on the child: The adult should be aware of the child’s whereabouts and pay close attention to their movements. This is especially important when hiking near cliffs or steep drop-offs.
  2. Use a child carrier or harness: If the child is very young or has difficulty understanding the dangers of getting too close to the edge, the adult may want to use a child carrier or harness to keep the child close and secure.
  3. Use verbal cues and reminders: The adult can use verbal cues such as “stay close” or “stay on the trail” to remind the child to stay away from the edge.
  4. Use physical barriers: If possible, the adult should use physical barriers such as fencing or guardrails to prevent the child from getting too close to the edge.
  5. Explain the dangers: The adult should explain to the child the dangers of getting too close to the edge, such as falling or getting hurt.
  6. Provide positive reinforcement: The adult should praise the child when they stay away from the edge and provide positive reinforcement such as a treat or a particular activity when they return home.

It’s important to remember that children may be curious and not fully understand the dangers of getting too close to the edge. The adult should be extra vigilant and take all necessary safety measures to ensure the child’s safety.

Overall, working with children with autism outdoors can be a powerful tool for promoting physical, social, and cognitive development. Caregivers should keep in mind the unique needs and preferences of the child and be mindful of their sensory needs and social interactions. With the right approach and activities, children with autism can thrive in the outdoors and develop a lifelong appreciation for nature.

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