“While we see the forest, a person with ASD will see every single leaf on every single branch on every single tree in the forest” Paul Fijal
Something that I’ve noticed happening naturally over the last couple of years is an increase in kids on the Autistic Spectrum Disorder coming to our Forest School sessions. With this trend I decided to explore deeper into how we could adapt, change or enhance the way we do things to help integrate young people on the autistic spectrum within our activities. Not only did I learn more than a few things but I also came up with my list of Top 9 Tips for outdoor activity leaders when hosting children with ASD, which I’d like to share with you.
Before starting up Woodland Classroom I had supported young people with learning differences in my role as a Learning Mentor so I have some experience of Aspergers syndrome and diagnosis’s of ASD. I have also volunteered for a day in a school specifically for children who have Autism but I still didn’t feel like I knew how to be more integrative and able to adapt within our Forest School sessions.
My experience of autism in others is also hugely variable, from kids who hit their head repeatedly on the wall and need to spend lots of time in a padded sensory room with no speech and no ablity to engage on a social level, to the other end of the spectrum such as University students deemed as being “a bit shy” who have ended up with a diagnosis of Aspergers syndrome which came as a shock to everyone who knew them. So, with all this in mind I was left feeling confused about what being autistic really means.
Among other research, I watched some TED Talks on YouTube to help me better understand the world of autism and what it might mean to us and our outdoor education business. The biggest message I gained was one I already knew deep down, that every child is different and this equally applies to kids with ASD as much as it does with any other child. Just because a child has been diagnosed with ASD it does not mean there are a set of rules which apply to the way they behave or see the world.
All the kids we have had on our Forest School sessions with ASD have been vastly different, their needs are different, their preferences are different, their likes and dislikes are not the same and their social interactions varied.
On most occasions we have kids who are high functioning attending our events and they are left by their parents for a full day of activities and 95% of the time the day goes by without incident.
On other days when we have had kids with lower functioning ASD they have attended with parents and there has been no or little impact on ourselves as activity leaders and how we need to run our sessions.
While watching different TED Talks on Autism I was particularly struck by this metaphor from Paul Fijal…
“While we see the forest, a person with ASD will see every single leaf on every single branch on every single tree in the forest”
This made me wonder why is it that a woodland, an ever changing environment with so much rich and wonderful stimulus, isn’t overwhelming for kids that can be prone to sensory overload? Come to think of it, this question applies to all natural environments and wild spaces.
One thing is apparent, nearly all children enjoy their time in the woods being themselves and partaking in the activities Forest School offers them.
I also believe that kids with ASD gain something important from their time with us, there is a therapeutic quality about the activities and natural setting that no traditional classroom can give you. There is peace and tranquillity to be found in the forest. There is space to take time-out whenever needed and even though there are lots of stimulus entering the senses, it is all natural, moving at a seasonal rhythm and it speaks to a deeper part of what makes us human.
If kids with ASD are sensitive to routines being changed then surely the slowly-changing environment out in a woodland provides a subtle learning opportunity. Children see the modern world as ever changing, it never stays the same yet in a woodland the change is gentle and brings with it new beauty and new experiences and it all happens one day at a time, one moment at a time.
What I realised is everything we were already doing in our Forest School was absolutely correct and I am always ready to remind myself that not having preconceived ideas about autistic kids and their behaviour was the best way to be.
I promised to give you some tips from my experience. Here’s my advice for anyone who runs Forest School or outdoor activities and lacks experience of working with kids on the autistic spectrum.
MY TOP 9 TIPS
FOR OUTDOOR ACTIVITY LEADERS, CONSIDERING HOSTING CHILDREN WITH ASD
TIP 1 – Ask the Right Questions Early On
We often run events where the parents drop their kids off for the day. In this situation, if a parent wants to book their child to your event and is unsure whether or not they should stay with them for the day then you can ask the parent whether their child has any one-to-one support in school. This should start the right sort of conversation. If the answer is yes, then I encourage the parent to stay for at least the first session, over time you may get to know the child enough and feel the parent staying is no longer necessary. Remember, every child is different.
TIP 2 – Invite Their Brother or Sister
Having a around can be a great help as they usually have the best understanding of their brother’s or sister’s needs and if the parent has discussed this with them in advance they could be able to let you know if something could be changed or needs dealing with to make things smoother and avoid an incident. A sibling is also a familiar face for the child, especially when coming to a strange new environment.
TIP 3 – Get an Appropriate Registration Form
I would make sure there is a good sized section on your child registration form that allows for a parent to explain any needs, learning differences or medical conditions their child has. When you get the form always read through it whilst you are with the parent and ask your questions. If the child is down as ASD or Aspergers for instance, you can then ask the parent if there is anything you need to know that could help their child enjoy their experience and if there are any needs that they haven’t written down that may help.
TIP 4 – Get the Right Team Together
If a parent has explained that their child struggles with team work or competition etc, I will always try and team these kids up with quieter children rather than louder more excitable children. If you’ve got regular kids on your event that you know would have the right temperament then that can be a help.
TIP 5 – Get a Hammock
At our Forest School we have a hammock hanging in the woods away from the main circle and hub of activity but in clear view. At the start of the session make it know to the children that the hammock is for ‘time out’ only, and when a child needs time out, they should ask and are given permission to use it. If a child is using the hammock then all other children must leave them alone, it is not a place of play but a place to chill out.
TIP 6 – Give Space When It’s Needed
Unfortunately it can often be other children that ‘wind up’ a situation and almost seem to enjoy watching a child have a melt-down. Some kids will wrongly see such behaviour as entertainment and that can’t be tolerated. Very often i’ve found it’s the the other kids watching the melt-down that need to be dealt with rather than the child who is having difficulties. Kids tend to know how to self sooth so give them space by distracting any other kids and getting them away from the situation, you or a colleague can keep half an eye on the child to make sure they are not at risk from harm but it is often best to leave them alone and maybe check in with them after a little while and let them know you are there if they need you, if they want to be left alone then respect their wishes and do so.
TIP 7 – Keep Language Simple
If you find that the child with ASD has upset another child or their behaviour is not acceptable then tell them not to do this in as few words as possible, keep it simple and to the point, do not give long explanations as to why. Just say no. For instance; “do not kick”, “do not take her stick” etc. Make sure they have understood, repeat if needed and then let the incident go.
TIP 8 – Be Yourself
Get rid of your preconceived ideas of ASD and start from scratch with each individual, get to know them for who they are, ask questions and watch their body language, know when to back off and leave a child in peace and keep doing what makes them happy. This sort of approach can be applied to any kids in your group, you don’t need to be different with the kids with ASD than you do with kids without autism.
TIP 9 – Do Your Research, starting with….
Lastly, watch this video from Ted X Talks by Paul Fijal. I found it explained for me how a child with ASD could hit the point of melt-down. So as an adult responsible for such kids on our events it really helped my awareness.
So in conclusion, you might be asking, “why are there only 9 Top Tips instead of the well established Top 10?” Well, like I’ve learned in my research into children with autism, it’s good not to expect a set pattern for everything. Norms are there to be challenged.
Good luck with your own outdoor adventures and thanks for reading,
Lea Wakeman is an outdoor activity leader and founder of Woodland Classroom, based in the UK. She is also a trainee counsellor and has worked as a Mental Health Mentor.