There are many challenges to raising children. This is especially true for children who are on the autistic spectrum, especially during the early years when they are still learning how to cope with sensory over-stimulation. However, this doesn’t mean that the family has to miss out on your favorite activities, even if those activities take place outdoors. While family outings such as a camping trip may take some extra effort and planning, it can be done in such a way that the entire family can enjoy the outdoors together.
Predictability is Key
It is very important to talk with your child well ahead of the time that you will be going on your camping trip. Autistic children need routine and can become agitated when their routine is disrupted. By talking with your child ahead of time and having them help with some of the planning, they will be more mentally and emotionally prepared to enjoy the trip. The uncertainty is often what overwhelms them in a new situation. They thrive on predictability and it is essential that they are well aware of an upcoming change to their schedule so that they aren’t caught off guard and overwhelmed.
Make a Sensory Go-Bag
Picking out a special backpack that is specifically for your child is vital. You will want to fill the bag with some of your child’s creature comforts of home that can give them a feeling of stability and promote a safe feeling for them. This can include smooth rocks, fidget toys, a favorite stuffed animal, or other favorite objects that they can carry with them. You will also want to include items that can help them to quiet the outside world during periods of over stimulation. These may include items such as sunglasses, noise canceling earmuffs, an MP3 player with headphones, a lap-pad or weighted blanket, and or even favorite coats or jackets. Don’t forget to bring this backpack with you when hiking or trips away from the campsite.
Create a Space for Sensory Time-Outs
A child that has autism needs to have space where they can regroup when they are experiencing sensory overload. Not having a space that is quiet and secure during times of over-stimulation can lead to an agitated state of being and even a meltdown. While this may seem like a task that is difficult to do while camping outdoors, it is not impossible. Camper trailers are an ideal way to offer your child that needed space during times of anxiety. While a tent may block out the visual stimuli, a camper can provide them with the benefit of quiet and complete isolation from the bugs and smells outside during times of stress. Let your child set up their own space in the camper with blankets and other things to help them remove themselves physically from the stimulus outside, and even just the knowledge that the space is there for them can help them face extended periods of high stimulus for longer.
Consider the Location
When going camping, you can make it easier for your child to enjoy the trip by choosing the right type of location. Avoid places that receive heavy traffic as a tourist location, as the isolation from society can work in your child’s favor when preventing anxiety. You can also look online at ratings to know if an area is heavy with mosquitoes or other insects that can aggravate your child’s senses and find places with fast-moving rivers for calming background noise. Another important thing to consider is to have a campfire ready site, whether you are cooking outdoors or not. The flickering flames of a campfire can provide a natural form of focus and promote a relaxed state in a child who is experiencing sensory overload.
With the proper planning, both you and your child can enjoy your time together camping outdoors. You know your child better than anyone else. Applying your knowledge with the steps listed above can go a long way with your child when making the transition of home routine to camping routine.
Every parent believes their child is exceptional in one way or the other, but parents of children who are twice exceptional may not always embrace this double label.
What is Twice Exceptional?
Twice exceptional (2E), children are different from the ‘norm’ in two ways. They are gifted in one area, while they have a disability in another area. For example, a child who is gifted visual spatial and in math, but has Dysgraphia so struggles with writing. Alternatively, a child who is gifted creatively but has ADHD and struggles to complete tasks.
For a child to be labeled as gifted, he must have specific scores on intelligence or aptitude tests. A score over 130 IQ in a sub-test of an IQ test, or score 92nd percentile or above in a subject area on a standardized test, would qualify as gifted. For a child to be labeled with a disability, he must have a condition that hampers one or more aspects of daily life. This could be a learning disability, physical disability or psychological disability. In some way his disability affects his ability to learn in school.
If you are a parent of a twice exceptional child, it is very important to recognize the challenges these children face often go unrecognized by the schools. You must understand this so you can be an advocate for your child.
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7 School Challenges Twice Exceptional Children Face
1. Performance Discrepancy
There is often a significant difference in a twice exceptional child’s capabilities and how they perform in school. In other words, because of their disability, they perform below their ability level. If they are gifted and perform average, their disability may not be recognized because their grades may be on par with the average student in the class.
2. Good at Compensating
Twice exceptional children are often very bright and resourceful, and they can use their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. For example, if a child struggles with spelling but he is gifted visual spatial, he can memorize words for a spelling test by seeing them as pictures. Ask him a week later and he won’t be able to spell any of them. Many times these children aren’t diagnosed until high school or college when the curriculum gets so difficult they can no longer find a way to compensate.
3. Denied Services Because of Good Grades
This is a common theme I see as a special education advocate. These children do well in school, and because their grades are fine the school says it does not have to provide support. The Little/Felton letter from the Office of Special Education (OSE) clearly states that students do not have to fail classes to receive services. Despite this, parents will often have to strongly advocate to get their very smart child help for a learning disability.
4. The Child Feels Very Different
All children want to fit in with their peers, and with one difference a child can feel awkward and left out. With two differences, twice exceptional children often find it very difficult to bridge the gap between themselves and their peers. It is important to find interests your child shares with peers, or to seek out peers with similar gifts as your own child.
5. The Child Lacks Persistence
Gifted children can struggle with tasks that are hard because so much of what they do comes very easily. When faced with a challenge, they may give up. They are not used to failing and trying again. At school they may have subjects that are really easy, and other subjects that are too hard. They rarely have schoolwork that is the right level of difficulty for their abilities.
6. People See the Child as Lazy
Adults see the brilliance in the child and they do not realize the child is having difficulty. As a result, instead they label the child as resistant or lazy, insisting they are not trying hard enough. This makes it even more difficult for the child to ask for help because any time they reach out they are just told they are not putting in good effort.
7. Our Educational System Fails 2E Kids
There are few educational methods that help twice exceptional children flourish in the academic environment. Parents have to pick up the slack by engaging the student with after school activities or supplementing instruction with additional curriculum. Many parents will move their children from school to school in an effort to find a good fit, but this is rarely found in public schools. There are private schools that cater specifically to 2E children, but there are few of them and they are usually cost prohibitive for the majority of families.
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6 Ways to Support Your Twice Exceptional Child
1. Advocate for Your Child
If you see your child struggling, it is important to investigate what is causing the difficulty. If you believe your child may have an underlying disability, it is important that you advocate for your child, even when ‘experts’ tell you that you are wrong.
2. Focus on the Giftedness
Research has shown that if you focus on the child’s gifts first, not the disability, in the long run it will lead to higher self-confidence (Nielsen & Mortoff, Albert, 1989). So it is important to make the giftedness the primary topic of the child, rather than the difficulties. Focus on strengths, not weaknesses. Help the child understand that everybody has difficulties, and these problems are not unique to him.
3. Find 2E Parent Support Groups
Find a parent of 2E children support group that will give you a forum to ask questions and receive advice. Many parents are struggling to parent 2E children and connecting with them will help you feel less alone. My two favorite Facebook groups are Parents of 2E Children and Raising Poppies.
4. Educate Teachers & Professionals
It is very common in the schools to focus on what the child is doing wrong rather than right. Helping the teachers and other school personnel understand the struggles of a 2E child can go a long way to ensuring your child gets the right support at school. The same is true for doctors, psychologists or other professionals who work with your child. They may see the giftedness and assume the challenges are resistance or laziness. Help them understand how the disability affects the child’s performance, and help them see that it is not a behavior problem.
5. Help Your Child Manage Stress
Twice exceptional kids endure a lot of stress and pressure. Some comes from peers making fun of their brilliance, other stuff comes from their sense of failure when they cannot perform tasks that seem easy for peers. These children also feel a lot of pressure to be super successful because they do have super strengths. They really struggle with fear of failure if their disability significantly affects their ability to perform in school. So help your child talk about this stress, and teach her skills to help her manage this anxiety or sense of overload.
6. Find Like Minded Peers
2E children often suffer socially because they feel so different from the other students. It is important to be proactive about finding like-minded peers who share common interests and enjoy the same activities. You might encourage your child to join certain clubs at school. You might seek out special interest activities outside of school. If you can find at least one place where your child feels at home, that can go a long way in helping your child manage the other difficulties he encounters in life.
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Bonnie is a special education advocate and parenting coach. She works with parents to help them get the right support in school as well as finding the solutions outside of school that help their child improve their learning challenges. She is a mom to two boys, both with some learning issues, although the oldest was severely delayed. He is now an honor student !