Written by Krystyann Krywko, Ed.D., Illustration: Jupiterimages/Liquidlibrary/Thinkstock
Winter brings an abundance of outdoor activities that families can participate in together - from building a snow fort in the backyard, to skiing down the slopes. However, if your child has special needs, it can also be a time of concern as you wonder how your child might adapt to the change in seasons and activities.
“The bottom line is that exposure and preparation holds true for any child with special needs,” says Andrea Richardson, co-founder of Thriving with Autism (www.thrivingwithautism.com). “The more you can prepare and help your child experience what they will see and do, the better the experience will be for everyone.” With a little extra planning, you can help your child adjust to the new season and you also might discover a great family activity in the process.
For young children, you don't have to go far from home to have winter fun. Try heading out to the backyard or to a local park to start exploring.
- Building an obstacle course in the snow is a great way to provide sensory experiences. Recreational therapist, Ximena Conesa, suggests making tunnels in the snow or using cones or sound-producing markers for children to follow.
- If your child is hesitant about exploring the snow, bring some snow inside in a tub and help them explore it with their senses in a less overwhelming environment. Have children touch the snow with and without gloves on to help them understand what cold feels like.
- Winter also brings an abundance of special clothing. It might take a while for your child to become used to their winter clothing. Try on hats, mittens and heavy winter boots inside the house well before they are required outside. Let your child spend some time playing with them.
- Try to find winter items that aren't itchy and constricting - fleece is always a great option. Also, many companies are making tag-less products, realizing that many children cannot stand itchy tags.
Hitting the Slopes
“The most important thing to do when introducing your child to skiing (or snowboarding) is to plan ahead,” says Pam Greene, Program Director at the Adaptive Sports Foundation.
- Try to visit the hill during the week when it is less busy, or at least arrive early the day you plan to ski. “It is worth it if you can find the time to visit the lodge and help your child understand the process, so the first day isn’t so overwhelming,” suggest Ms. Greene.
- Skiing and snowboarding equipment can feel awkward. Help your child try on equipment at home, if possible, or visit the local hill or ski shop before your first day on the slopes. This will allow them to feel the weight of the boots and how their feet will feel once they are buckled into them.
- Seeing is believing. William Evans, a physical therapist, directs his families toward videos on YouTube for skiing/snowboarding. “I find that children usually have a vague idea of what skiing or snowboarding is about, but they need to see it in action to understand what they will be doing.”
- Share a story. The Adaptive Sports Foundation provides a Getting Ready booklet (available under the resource section at www.adaptivesportsfoundation.org) that is full of great information to help children prepare for their first time on the ski hill.
It’s Hockey Time
Depending on your child's age and interest, ice hockey can be a great way for children with special needs to connect to others in their community.
- Start slowly. If your child shows an interest in hockey, introduce a stick and puck (or ball) to them - try playing around on the driveway or an empty piece of pavement in the park.
- Skating is the foundation of hockey, so it's important to introduce your child to this skill first. “Coordination might not always be a strength for some children,” says Ms. Richardson, “but I have found that children have the concentration needed to work toward being successful with activities they are really interested in.”
- When starting out in any new sport, it is important to speak with the coaches and educate them about your child's needs and what accommodations and strategies might be necessary. “My children have always played mainstream hockey,” says Karen Gintoli, mother of four, (three are hearing impaired), hockey players “and we have never had an issue with coaches or other players.”
- Help your child connect with others. The social piece is a critical one in team sports, so it's important to have at least one peer your child can interact with on some level. Find a team member that has similar interests to your child before the season starts. That way, the connection will continue onto the ice.
Take it One Day at a Time
Transitioning to a new activity with a special-needs child can be difficult. As a parent, you should be prepared for setbacks and they should be handled the same way they are handled at home. Identify where the breakdown is occurring, take one step back and start again. “The key for parents is to identify where their child struggled and look at what needs to be reinforced to make them successful,” says Ms. Richardson of Thriving with Autism. “Dropping the activity entirely will only make your child become more rigid and not try new things.” It's important to keep in mind that setbacks are a part of life, even for ‘typical’ peers. “I am constantly amazed at how the self-confidence grows as children work toward a new activity,” says Ms. Greene. “I would tell parents that their child can succeed in a new activity, it just takes time.”
Make it Personal!
Social stories are often used to help children on the autism spectrum prepare for new experiences, but they are great tools for any child who is learning a new skill. Follow the guidelines below to make your child the star of their own story.
- To start your child's story, take pictures of the place you are going or the activity your child will be participating if possible; or use cut-out pictures from magazines.
- Provide a separate page for each step of the activity. Write a few sentences below each picture that will help explain the story to your child.
- Keep the story positive; focus on your child's strengths.
- While it's okay to point out potential problems that might arise during the activity, it's also important to provide solutions. For example, “The ice is slippery and sometimes you might fall, but I will be there to help you get back up.”
- Introduce the booklet to your child as a bedtime story and keep it on their bookshelf, so it becomes part of their regular routine.
- The earlier you can introduce the story before the activity, the better. Ms. Richardson, of Thriving with Autism, suggests introducing these stories at least two to four weeks in advance, so the activity becomes a normal part of your child’s thinking.
Krystyann Krywko, Ed.D., is a writer and education researcher who specializes in hearing loss and the impact it has on children and families. As a parent of a special-needs child (her son is hearing impaired), she understands the importance of adapting activities to fit the strengths of your child.