Going to the mall can be a great place to take your kids on a long summer day when they may otherwise be jumping off the walls in the house. The mall is filled with so many opportunities to teach your child life skills, safety, play skills and social skills but let’s face it, it can be overwhelming. I’m not sure about you but my head typically spins at the mall on a busy Saturday when I’m attempting to battle the noise, the lights and THE PEOPLE. By the time I leave, I can guarantee that I have aches in my feet and back paired with a big ole headache. Then I usually need time at home to collapse on the couch and recover. Can you imagine what a child with autism must feel like?
The key is to set your child up to succeed and to start out small with your goals. Here are a few tips and ideas we came up with to help your child with their trips to the mall:
Some of the best advice we can give is to go to the mall on a not so busy day at a not so busy time. This means the weekend, lunch hour or after 5:00 is probably not ideal. If you work and the weekend is your only option, we suggest getting up early and arriving when the mall opens when it’s less busy. Make it easier on yourself and your kids. If you can, pick a weekday during a non-busy time of the day. Another idea is to choose a mall that isn’t the most popular in your town (if you have multiple malls in your town) and choose a mall that is somewhat kid friendly. This doesn’t necessarily mean a mall with multiple toy stores (dealing with toy stores can be a whole different blog). This means a mall with easily accessible bathrooms, many places to sit and rest and maybe even a playscape area. Also go to your mall’s website or info desk and research. See if they have any special accommodations that you can use for your family to make easier on everyone. You can also find out if they are having any events for kids this summer that your family might enjoy going to.
For all children, no matter what age or functioning level, when going to the mall we recommend a visual schedule. Each time we go to the mall we have a general idea in our head where we want to go, what we want to get and what we want to accomplish. Children with autism need us to provide this form them. They think in pictures, so the schedule or to do list needs to be visual. A visual schedule can come in many forms! If your child reads and has good reading comprehension, you can write out a list of the things you want to do and the stores you want to visit in advance, go over it with them and cross off each completed item as go. Drawing out stick figures next to your words is even more ideal (remember they think in pictures). You could even use your smart phone and type out a list for your child to refer to if you don’t want to use paper or a dry erase board. If your child isn’t reading yet or is working on reading, make them a picture schedule. This can be in manipulative form so they can put each picture on a “time for” slot and then into a “finished” pocket or it could be printed out on a piece of paper, depending on what best helps your child. It could also be electronic if you prefer to use your iPad or smart phone.
Start out small. Taking your child on a three hour trip where all you are doing is shopping for clothes and waiting in line may not be the best first step. Save this for a day where you can run errands without your kiddo. Your first step may be to simply have your child enter the mall. If this is the case, start out small. Your first goal may be to walk into a store. On their schedule, make symbols for walk, store, walk, car, home. Next visit you push them a little further: walk, store, fountain, store, walk, car, home. By their third visit they may be able to walk through a store, visit their favorite fountain, get a cookie at the nearest café and then go home. Here is an example of a visual very specific visual schedule for this sort of goal:
Your child may be fine maneuvering through the mall but once you get in, it may be stressful. A schedule is key! Decide what stores you will be visiting in advance and put them on your child’s schedule. You may choose four stores: Mom gets to choose two and your child gets to choose two. Alternate between a “mom store “and one of your child’s choices. Transitioning in and out between the stores may also be difficult. They may not want to leave a certain store or they may not want to stay in a certain store. Once you are almost ready to leave, give your child a “__ more minutes” warning while pointing to their schedule. When using a “__ more minutes” warning, it can be a good idea to use some sort of timer so your child can have visual feedback when time is involved. Set the stopwatch or alarm on your phone or set your analog watch. This is another visual that will help your child understand not only the temporal concepts involved but will also help them prepare cognitively for that what can be difficult transition.
Also prepare your child in advance for other expectations when at the mall. If you only want to buy them one item, then prepare them in advance. You can let them choose what they want to purchase before you even leave the house to go to the mall. You can make a visual to help them decide and then take the visual along to help with your child’s understanding and cognitive preparation. Here is an example:
Your child may experience no major challenges when at the mall. You can still work on social skills! To work on difficult Theory of Mind skills, have a special “mall Daddy day”, “mall Mommy day”, “mall friend day” or sibling day. Your child may be used to going to all their favorite stores, their favorite restaurant, seeing their favorite sights and more. In order to help your child with shifting these actions and increasing their Theory of Mind skills (perspective taking and ultimately understanding that other people have different thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes as me), only go to stores that Dad wants to go to. Only go to the restaurant that Dad wants to go to. Talk about how doing things that Dad wants to do makes Dad happy. This will significantly help your child work towards having increased empathy towards others, thinking about others and wanting to change their behaviors in order to alter other people’s thoughts and feelings. …which is key to meaningful relationships.
So remember, take small steps. This means to set your child up to succeed but at the same time still push them towards your goals. Slowly work your way from the car into a store then back to your car. The next trip, push them a little further to that fountain or café. By the fourth trip push them a little further. With each trip to the mall, you want to make it a little harder each time. Remember small steps are big steps for your child and family!
Also, build a trusting relationship with your child while still pushing them to succeed. For example, during your first visit, if your child wants to leave the mall then leave as soon as they are ready. Let them be in control. During the second visit, push them a little harder by saying “three more minutes.” Then wait a few seconds and then say “mall is finished” and leave. With each visit, continue increasing the time. You want your child to trust that you will listen to them but at the same time, you are ultimately in control.
Have fun at the mall with your family and remember, small steps are big steps!