Autism: coping strategies for large crowds

Parents of children with autism have all had those moments – an event that looks interesting but you’re not sure how your child will cope. I’d like to start this year’s blog (Happy New Year, one and all before I forget) with a personal story from last weekend.

I’m a Cambridge United fan and as quite a lot of parents do, they pass on their love of their football team to their sons and daughters. Freddie and I have been to watch Cambridge five times this season and whilst crowds had only numbered in the few thousand, he had found the noise and sensory overload too much at times.

Cambridge at Notts County was on his calendar as his first game of 2019. As you can no doubt relate to, once something is on an autistic child’s schedule, it cannot be removed without a lot of pain. We booked our tickets and I was delighted and alarmed to see the tickets were £2 each. Notts County were warning fans to get there early as a 15,000+ crowd was expected. (First tip – don’t buy tickets online with your child watching, you really can’t cancel half way through without trouble).

What could we do? Cancel our trip (and risk major disappointment and stress from a meltdown) or find ways to remove anxiety from the trip. A deep breath and we went for the latter. There was quite a bit of planning and preparing but it paid off!

Firstly, I spoke to Freddie and warned him (several times) that there’d be a big crowd (in a “wow, there’s going to be a huge crowd, about three or four times as many as last game” way, rather than in a “wow, big crowd, you might not like it” way). Then on the day, I built the picturepath routine to visualise the day, and packed a bag with some noise cancelling headphones, a fidget spinner and a spare battery pack for my phone.

Once we got there, we stuck to the picturepath plan rigidly – park at the ground and then lunch in a pub which had been pre-selected as it showed the lunchtime football game. There was some anxiety when we had to wait for food but thankfully a quiet word to the manager and Freddie’s lunch arrived quickly – I should’ve used AuKids recommendation of ringing before arriving to ask for food to be ready immediately! After lunch, we walked to the ground and collected our tickets before going in. (Top Tip – explain to stewards that headphones are noise cancelling headphones and they’re fine with you taking them in.)

In the ground, I let my son use my phone to look at football scores and self settle whilst getting used to the sights and sounds (that’s one of my universal tactics – always give your child time to get used to a new situation by giving them something familiar to play with so they can acclimatise at their speed).  By kick-off, Freddie was singing along and happy with the noise and sensations. When Cambridge scored after 41 minutes, you can see we were both pretty excited!

The second half was trickier. Freddie found the tension of a 1-0 lead hard to cope with. Add this to a noisy bunch of fans and he was heading for a meltdown. I gave him the noise cancelling headphones and my phone so he could look at the latest football scores. He sat happily flicking between the scores and the game in front of him and joined in the celebrations at the end as Cambridge hung on to win. As you can see, he’s pretty happy!

I knew the journey back could be tricky so I’d brought a packed lunch for him to eat and he was happy in the back until I stupidly changed from the schedule on his timeline. We made an unexpected detour to drop off my friend at his house and stopped again to get a takeaway for my tea, causing confusion and tears. Note to self – don’t change plans without flagging it up several times in advance! All in all though – a successful day and he went to bed very happy.

Here are my top tips – plan as much in advance as you can, build a timeline, have distractions (toys, food etc) and do your own risk assessment for the day (where might the stress points be?). Oh and arrange for your team to win – that always helps.

What are your top tips for a happy day out? We’d love to know!

If you’ve not got your tickets yet, there’s still time to get tickets for #CoPro19 on Monday January 21st in Stockport. This is all about how schools and parents can work together more effectively. The list of speakers and workshops is very impressive and you find out more about the event and can get tickets here

If you’re coming down, we’ll be exhibiting so come over and say hello.