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Ten tips for choosing a playground for a child with autism

A recent study confirms what many parents know well: it’s common for children with autism to wonder, which puts tremendous stress on families. According to the report, which appeared in the Journal of Pediatrics, nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) attempt to wander or bolt from a safe, supervised place. More than half of these wandering children go missing – often into dangerous situations.

Autism Speaks funded the research through its support of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN), an online project bringing together families affected by autism.

More than 1,200 parents of children affected by ASD participated in the study.  Nearly half (49 percent) of parents reported that a child with ASD attempted to wander or run away at least once after age 4. Over half of these wandering children (53 percent) went missing long enough to cause worry. In addition, 65 percent of these incidents involved a close call with traffic. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) involved a close call with drowning.

When asked why their child with autism wandered, just over half of parents indicated that their child “simply enjoys running and/or exploring.” Other common reasons included heading to a favorite place, escaping an anxious situation, escaping uncomfortable sensory stimuli or pursuing a special interest (each reported by roughly a third of parents).

The survey also confirmed that wandering creates immense stress for families. Over half of parents (56 percent) indicated it was their child’s most stressful behavior. Nearly half (43 percent) reported that it interfered with their ability to sleep at night. Sixty-two percent reported that it prevented them from attending or enjoying activities away from home.

Despite this taxing predicament, half of the parents said they’d received no guidance whatsoever on preventing or addressing the problem.

It’s important to find playgrounds that meet the unique needs of children with autism knowing these common characteristics. To follow are 10 tips from the Inclusive Play Design Guide for identifying a fun and safe playground for a child with autism:

1.  Go to a playground that is completely enclosed by a fence.  There should only be one way in and one way out.  A closed gate with seating nearby is preferable.

2.  Look for playgrounds that have a wide path all the way around the play equipment. This allows a child with autism to understand the dynamics of the playground from a safe distance.  The perimeter path is often sought out by children with autism because it offers a quiet space away from the action.

3.  Identify playgrounds that have activities that your child really enjoys such as sand play, water play, musical play with instruments, and imaginative play with themed play equipment. It’s also important that the playground have ample space for running and exerting energy.

4.  Find a playground that includes cozy spaces so that your child can have a place to chill out.  Check out the Cozy Cocoon.

5.  Look for playgrounds with a lot of movement—equipment that enables children to spin, swing, sway, rock and jump, are ideal.

6.  Consider playgrounds where designers have paid attention to the line of sight.  Play areas divided into pods are helpful. Look for “see through” equipment, such as rope climbers that offers greater visibility across the playground. Lastly avoid playgrounds that have a large module structure in the middle because it limits the line of sight. Playgrounds with large structures in the back or corner are ideal.

7.  Playgrounds that include nature play as well as good landscaping can set a serene tone helping to calm children with autism.

8.  Find a playground with more muted tones rather than bright colors.

9.  Identify play activities that promote social play. See-saws are great ways to help teach all children how to cooperate.

10.  Look for sensory rich playgrounds that include different activities focused on the senses such as hearing and touch.

How does your local playground cater to children with autism?