Quick Guide: Field Tripping it with an Autistic Parishioner

Field trip art

School’s out, baby! And with the thought of summer, I don’t know about you, but I get to thinking about excursions. Fun summer outings with the church and with groups of friends…it makes summer awesome.

But if you happen to have an autistic person with you when your church school group or youth group goes out to a game or amusement park, you’ll have some very specific safety concerns to address, both beforehand and during the trip itself. (Side note: this post is not in any way meant to address overnight trips.)

I discussed these concerns with Jackie Thaxton, BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst). She is specifically trained in behavior analysis and intervention, and works daily with autistic students to help them acquire new skills. Also, during the summer months, she takes one or two field trips a week with a school full of spectrum kids.

She helped me come up with ways to address safety concerns so everyone can get through the trip well–and hopefully, even having learned something!


When I was a kid, I remember losing track of my mom in the grocery store once or twice, which of course ended in us finding each other, one or both of us in tears. With autism, it’s that same problem, only much more dangerous and widespread in its context.

The AWAARE Collaboration is a group of six different major autism advocacy organizations (including Autism Speaks, TACA, and The Autism Society) who work together to increase awareness of and prevent incidents of wandering. They define wandering this way:

Wandering is the tendency for an individual to try to leave the safety of a responsible person’s care or a safe area, which can result in potential harm or injury. This might include running off from adults at school or in the community, leaving the classroom without permission, or leaving the house when the family is not looking. This behavior is considered common and short-lived in toddlers, but it may persist or re-emerge in children and adults with autism. Children with autism have challenges with social and communication skills and safety awareness. This makes wandering a potentially dangerous behavior.

They also compare this tendency in spectrum people to the same tendency in dementia and Alzheimer’s patients.

Why does this happen?

Thaxton explains it as a combination of these kids unable to attach meaning to the abstractness of the word “danger,” and being highly motivated by something that’s away from their safe zone.

“What I’ve seen in parents of typical kids (is that they ask) ‘why don’t you just tell him not to go into the street?'” she says.  “That’s not going to work…because, what’s that really mean? What’s that mean to a kid who doesn’t know what ‘dangerous’ means?”

What chaperones should know about wandering

It happens fast. I asked Thaxton how fast. “In about five seconds!” she says.

You can’t turn your head. You can’t deal with someone else and come back, even if it looks like she’s occupied, even if she’s never shown a tendency to wander before. If the social deficit is there, if she’s surrounded by new and interesting things, wandering is a possibility. Be vigilant.

What chaperones and parents can do to stay safe

1. Set expectations beforehand

Thaxton explains that at work, she and her team take steps to teach the kids proper responses to safety commands such as “stop” and “come here.”

Start easy–put the child a few feet away, and ask them to come here. Then, Thaxton says, “We eventually (say ‘come here’) when they’re doing something they love, so they know they still have to respond.”

Practice makes perfect, so if you’re planning to chaperone, touch base with the parents to make sure they’re on board.

2. Use positive language (hint: it’s not for his self-esteem)

Attention is a struggle with autism, and because of that, your word choices matter.

Thaxton says, “A lot of people will say ‘don’t cross the street’ while the kid’s not paying attention. He could have possibly heard, ‘cross the street.'” And that’s pretty counterproductive.

“Instead,” she suggests, “say ‘stop at the road,’ or ‘stop and wait for an adult.’ Tell him what you want him to do, not what you don’t want.”

3. Assign one chaperone to the child, and possibly one typical friend.

Is it necessary to have one person attending to the autistic person in the group, and having no other responsibilities? “Yes, in most cases,” says Thaxton. It’s what makes the most sense for safety, but there are other benefits as well.

“If you want it to be beneficial for them, and not just managing their behavior, you’d want one adult per two kids, at least. On a field trip, you’re trying to teach them to be a part of the community, but you’re also trying to get the kids to interact. So I think it would be okay if there was one person with a typical kid and a kid with autism, if they’re trying to facilitate them talking to each other or playing together. But other than that, you’re going to be too busy managing to be able to actually make it useful.”

Bottom line: awareness and preparation are key. When everyone’s safe, everyone can have fun.

william bowling
William on a school field trip to the bowling alley

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