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6 Tips to Hiking with Children on the Autism Spectrum

Our family enjoys hiking together—all of us, except Nathan, that is. He only tolerates it if it isn’t too difficult of a hike. Over Memorial Day we decided to do a short hike near our home…only it was pretty steep in some parts and Nathan wasn’t happy about it. So yes, he did throw a tantrum and we had to stop several times while he yelled at us.

The challenge with having a kiddo on the autism spectrum is you never can accurately predict how they are going to behave. Nathan has happily hiked with our family the last 10 times, so I guess we were kind of “due” for a meltdown.

These are some tips we have learned along the way that usually help us have happier hikes (but obviously there is no guarantee).

1. Be Wise When Choosing Hikes

There are some great websites out there to help tell you all about the difficulty of different hikes. We have used the following website (it is also an app) to understand what the hike will be like:

https://www.alltrails.com/

Most of our hikes are at National Parks as visiting these are a favorite past-time for our family. We always research our hikes on the park’s website and talk to park rangers before we venture out. If you are heading to a national park be sure to find it and read about it’s hikes at https://www.nps.gov/index.htm

Be sure that you know what you are choosing so that you don’t put your child on the autism spectrum through something they will absolutely hate. For example, if you child hates getting wet (like ours) then you will probably want to avoid hikes that cross small streams or go too close to waterfalls.

We also know that we can go on simple one-mile hikes pretty easily. But Nathan’s max is about 2-3 miles. Be wise when you pick your hike so that you are more likely to have a good experience.

2. Put the Hike on the Calendar

Putting your schedule on a visual calendar is extremely important for children with autism. Because so many of them don’t communicate verbally or understand verbal communication very well, visual cues are really important.

If you need to make a visual calendar for your child with autism, check out my blog about making one here:

https://tamarakanderson.com/blog/8-steps-to-making-a-visual-schedule-for-children-with-autism/

Of course, your child with autism might have also learned the trick to “erase” things off of our hanging calendar that he doesn’t want to do. Ha! These kids are pretty smart! Do your best to help prepare them for the change in schedule and work to transition them into the new activity.

3. Bring Along a Device

Nathan loves his iPad. It has saved our family events more times than I can count!

Of course, there are times when I have also sat out in the car with a screaming child while everyone else is eating at a restaurant–even when he has his device. But, usually having his device will help him feel like he is bringing a little bit of “normal” to whatever different activity we are doing that day.

So, if you are hiking with someone with autism be sure to bring along a distraction device. It doesn’t mean you won’t have to take it away so they watch the ground they are walking on in really difficult areas, but it is good to have something to save the day so you can do your hike.

4. Show them a Map of the Hike

Nathan used to always HATE taking walks around our neighborhood. I don’t know why. But one day when I was trying to establish a new routine of walking every day, I had the idea to print out a map of where we were going to walk. I then showed him the map and we followed it with our finger the first time we walked. No tantrum. I wonder if part of the tantrum is because they don’t know how long the walk or hike is going to be.

If you were taking a normal child on a hike they would probably ask you how long it is and what they are going to go see and you would answer them. Showing my son the map decreased his anxiety because all of the sudden he knew what he was going to be doing, and he knew we would be returning to home once we were done.

I think part the reason children with autism throw a tantrum is because they don’t understand verbal communication as well. For us, having a visual map was extremely helpful because Nathan could “see” what we were going to do.

5.Bring Favorite Snacks & Water

I will be the first to admit that I have “bluffed” my way through many events Nathan would have preferred not to attend with gummy bears or M&Ms or Starburst candies. I know that probably makes me a bad mom, but, honestly folks, it was for my sanity and that of the people around me.

If you are going to be hiking, it is good to bring along a little “encouragement” to keep your kiddo on the spectrum moving. Also, be sure to bring along water so that no one gets dehydrated.

A few years ago we purchased these really cool Bottle Slings from Chicobag that we absolutely LOVE! They are light and fold into themselves to make a little pouch for storage. We keep them in the back of the car so they are available anytime we are out and about. We give every child one of these and a water bottle when we hike and they are perfect. Even Nathan carries his own water and small snack in these bottle slings.

6. Keep Going

Even if your child is throwing a tantrum at the beginning of a hike, they will probably be happy coming back. That was the case with Nathan and our hike. We had to stubbornly push through and keep him moving, but we were able to see the cave at the top and he was much happier on the way back down. Ah! Finally some peace & quiet.

We had to push through the hard part of the hike (tantrum) to finally have the peace and quiet and enjoyment part of the hike.

So, keep going. Keep trying new things. Don’t let having a child with autism keep you paralyzed.

Some days I have more emotional energy to deal with the tantrums than others–and so, on days when I am exhausted I may choose not to pick a battle with an unknown outcome. Other days I am more energized and feel like I can handle it.

So pick your battles, but don’t give up.

Happy Hiking!

About the author, Tamara

Tamara K. Anderson is a speaker, author, podcaster, and is a professional in HOPE. She has four children who struggle with autism, ADHD, anxiety, visions issues, and all bring her great joy.

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