How to ensure that pupils with autism get the most out of school trips
School trips can be enriching experiences for pupils. But many children with autism rely heavily on a routine, so the prospect of change and the loss of the everyday structure of school can be very frightening and disorientating. The sensory overload is also sometimes tough to cope with.
The following tips may be useful for teachers planning school excursions for pupils with autism, whether they are days out or longer-stay trips in this country or abroad.
It is important to remember that autism is a spectrum condition, which means that while all people with autism share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways. Not all these tips will be appropriate for every pupil with autism. They will need to be adapted depending on the individual’s support needs.
Introducing a destination
It is crucial to start introducing the destination you will be visiting early on.
If you’re planning a longer trip, it might be helpful to look at a map and familiarise the young person with the location. Google Earth can be particularly useful as it can provide a direct view on the ground. Research as much information as possible about the place or country so that the young person becomes familiar with it.
Another useful thing to talk about is any borders that you might cross and the distance of the town, county or country from home, providing the student with a way to measure the journey. Pictures of key landmarks may also be useful.
If possible, arrange a day in school when you focus on the place that you will be visiting, and consider building a lesson plan around it. For example, if you’re going to Italy you could make pizzas, paint flags to decorate your classroom with and play suitable music. If visiting a museum, you could base a lesson around the attraction’s theme and ask pupils to bring in an item commonly associated with that theme.
Getting ready to go
Once the pupil is familiar with the place that you’ll be visiting, talk about the date of the visit and make a countdown chart or calendar. Calendars are a great way to prepare for a trip. Pupils can tick dates off or cover them up and see how much time is left until the trip starts.
It’s also worth checking at an early stage whether the young person has a restricted diet or is averse to some foods because of sensory issues. Speak to staff at the location and ask if they can accommodate any dietary preferences.
Three weeks to go…
Make a list of things to take and give this to the pupil:
- bag for boot of the bus – clothes, shoes, toiletries
- bag for the journey – books, games, pens, cool box for snacks on the way and perhaps a blindfold or earplugs to help with sleep in noisy and unfamiliar places.
Talk to the pupil about where he will sit – for example, window or aisle? Is there a reason why he shouldn’t sit near the loo? Does he want to sit next to someone or on his own? Try to accommodate his wishes as best you can.
If you are staying away, rooming is a very important issue. It might be quite a challenge for a pupil with autism to sleep in an unfamiliar room and bed with others present. Explain carefully what this entails and try to place him with understanding pupils. Some children with autism may not be able to share a room. If possible, the young person could take a familiar duvet or pillowcase to help him settle.
Two weeks to go…
Talk about what you’ll be doing on the trip. It may help a pupil to make an itinerary or diary with events and excursions listed, so he knows what to expect at any given time. He can then tick off the events as they pass. If you can, give the pupil a picture of the place you’ll be visiting, and where he will be staying (if appropriate), so that he can start to familiarise himself with it.
One week to go…
Meet with the pupil’s parents and check over any medical issues or other vital information. This is particularly important if you are staying away. Does he sleep with a small night light on? Does he need music to fall asleep? If the young person could be present at the meeting, then that would be even better as he will know that you are acting as a parent during the trip. It may help the pupil’s understanding if his parents sign an agreement giving permission for you to assume this role. You can also arrange a convenient time for the pupil to call or Skype home.
In school, talk about what the rules for the trip will be; these should apply to all pupils. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to give the young person with autism a written contract and have a named person that they can go to during the trip if they are anxious about something. Social stories may also help.
Give out written information about the trip, including dates, times, modes of travel, accommodation and contact numbers, if appropriate.
On the day…
Arrive early to be waiting when the young person arrives, so there is no time for anxiety. Keep farewells brief and board the coach/transport as soon as possible. Devise a worksheet or games that relate to the child’s particular interests or strengths, to make the journey fun and to alleviate any anxiety that he is feeling. Favourite music on an MP3 player or a film on a portable DVD player may also help with the journey.
Once you’ve reached your destination, you might consider asking the pupil some questions:
- what do you need to know in order to feel OK?
- what can staff do to help your day go well?
- what can you do if you are feeling worried, stressed or overloaded?
- what should you do in emergencies?
The pupil can write down his answers to these questions (or you could give him a card with questions and answers already written on), then carry them around during the visit in case there are any problems.
Unstructured leisure time can be difficult for a pupil with autism, as he may not know what to do with himself. Having books, Lego and other games available may help a great deal. You could consider filling unstructured time with walks and swimming. Down-time can also be used to work on scrapbooks and diaries about the trip, and to talk about what went right about the day and what didn’t. Portable DVD players and Tablet devices with wireless internet access can be extremely useful in such circumstances.
Every person with autism is different and some of these suggestions might work for some but not for others. Responding appropriately to the pupil in front of you and their needs will help you, and them, have a fantastic trip.
Dr Khursh Khan is Headteacher at the NAS Robert Ogden School: