When your child’s on the autism spectrum, safety becomes your number one priority. Backyards are wonderful spaces to enjoy nature, get the wiggles out, explore, and de-stress. They also facilitate activities that improve gross and fine motor skills, problem-solving and thinking skills, and social, communication, and language skills.
Make your backyard safe and accessible
Because autistic behaviours may include elopement and an inability to recognize and properly react to environmental dangers, take these steps to ensure your child’s safety.
- Erect a fence that’s at least 48” tall and includes a gate that locks. Fences may not completely stop a child from wandering off, but they will slow her down. If you’ve got a Houdini on your hands, add an alarm that sounds when the gate opens.
- Post displays or signs in the backyard—a red stop sign at the door, gate, shed, or garage reminds kids with autism that they’re not permitted in a certain area.
- Lock up all tools, chemicals, and equipment well out of the reach of your children. Keep them inside when you have to mow or use the weedeater.
- Verify that all plants are nontoxic. Besides banishing poison ivy, sumac, and oak from your garden, here’s a comprehensive list of poisonous plants.
Sensory activities and other fun outside games
Looking for something fun and engaging for your child? Experts recommend the following activities for their therapeutic value—and they’re all DIY-friendly, too.
Autism Speaks has a list of 10 fun sensory play ideas that include creating a tray of brightly-colored beads, polka dot slime, a spider web walk, and balloon paint stamping. Check out other ideas here.
- Grab the sidewalk chalk and teach your kids to play hopscotch. It’s great for building muscle tone—and if you make up chants to accompany the hops, you can really get those creative juices flowing!
- Create an obstacle course with your child’s toys and equipment, and found items. Ask your child to hug a tree, run around a bush, jump over a larger branch, or roll down a slight hill.
- Design a scavenger hunt. Use pictures or words to show him what he should find, like colored leaves, rocks, twigs, a squirrel’s nest, and pine cones. Give your child a camera or smartphone to take pictures.
- Play in the rain. Rain provides a wonderful sensory integration experience, so go ahead and encourage puddle jumping and splashing. Pass out buckets so everyone can collect water.
- Garden. Many kids on the autism spectrum are happiest outside. Gardens provide their own sensory opportunities, with plenty of sights, sounds, smells, and textures. Nothing beats sticking your hands into fresh soil—use gardening gloves if they don't like the dirt.
Pool safety for kids
According to the Pool Safely national public education campaign, drowning is the leading cause of unintentional death in children between the ages of one and four. If you own a pool, there are a variety of things you can do to secure it from curious kids—and animals!
- Install a safety cover. These covers are stronger than regular pool covers, and support the weight of children.
- Fence in the pool. The Consumer Product and Safety Commission recommends a minimum height of 48” with a self-closing latch. Consider also adding a combination lock or a gate alarm.
- Install a perimeter or pressure-sensitive pool alarm. These alarms work like invisible fences by creating a laser field that connects different points. When someone breaks the field, an alarm sounds. Pressure-sensitive alarms sit on the pool’s edge; they’re calibrated to detect a pressure wave caused by someone entering the water.
The natural classroom provides a wonderful, therapeutic environment for non-neurotypical kids. Once you’ve taken precautions to secure your backyard’s function and accessibility and made sure outdoor play is safe and fun, it’s time to invite your child to explore and engage with his world.