Transforming Field Trips for Children With Autism and SPD

They may not be in most students’ immediate future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but someday field trips will again be exciting ways for teachers to enrich kids’ education. 

Young elementary school girl touches display case while admiring an exhibit on a field trip for children with Autism.As a special education administrator, however, you know field trips for children with autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can sometimes turn out to be too exciting.

Children with autism don’t necessarily experience field trips as exciting departures from the school routine. These students depend on routine to help make their world feel safe and manageable (as we all do, to some extent). Trips to unfamiliar places where they’re expected to participate in different activities and follow unusual schedules are a major break from a normal day. 

And students who struggle to process sensory input may find the stimuli at their destination overwhelming. Field trips often emphasize interactivity, which can mean direct exposure to several new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. It might mean moving the body in new—even unusual—ways. All this unfamiliar input can lead to a sensory meltdown, making field trips memorable for all the wrong reasons.

At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we’re aware field trips can challenge kids with special needs. That’s why we do more than train our therapists (and have them train your teachers and staff) in ways to help students cope; we’re also working with places students go to help them become more accessible field trip destinations. 

Case Study: PTS Helps a Philly Museum Revolutionize Its Accessibility

The Museum of the American Revolution (MOAR) is one of the newer arrivals on the museum scene in Philadelphia, PA. It opened in 2017 and quickly established itself as a “must-do” for teachers educating students about the Revolutionary Era.

But MOAR’s emphasis on immersive, interactive encounters with history made it a potentially difficult field trip for children with autism and SPD. 

“There are smellable, touchable, immersive environments,” explains Tyler Putnam, Gallery Education Manager. “There are gunshots and bright lights. All those things are incredibly evocative and stimulating.” MOAR’s staff knew its visitors would have various levels of sensitivity, and wanted to avoid overstimulating those who’d find the stimuli too “surprising and shocking.” 

As a result, they turned to PTS for help.

With input from PTS Co-Founder and Co-Managing Partner Pam Hackett and others at PTS, MOAR crafted innovative ways to bring visitors with autism, SPD, vision loss, and other special needs into its vivid representations of the Revolution.

Group of school children with Autism and SPD on field trip in museum look at large, illuminated map, supervised by teachers.Solutions included:

  • Making a hands-on discovery center sensory-friendly.
    PTS helped MOAR make sure “Revolution Place,” its recreated 18th-century town and military encampment, featured appropriate activities for kids with autism and SPD, such as reproduction objects to handle and well-designed touchscreens.
  • Staging specific sensory-friendly events.
    MOAR’s first “Relaxed Experience Morning,” designed in consultation with PTS, let visitors arrive an hour early to experience its galleries at muted volume levels. They could also take part in certain hands-on, sensory-friendly activities, such as exploring a Revolutionary soldier’s reproduction rucksack.
  • Training staff in sensory processing issues.
    MOAR plans to draw on additional information and resources from PTS and PTS’ contact network to equip staff in effectively serving visitors with sensory issues. 

“PTS has been incredibly gracious and generous with their time and their knowledge,” says Putnam. And with PTS’ help, MOAR is gaining a reputation as a top activity for kids with autism and SPD in Philadelphia.

Schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere are starting the 2020-21 school year virtually. But as of this writing, MOAR plans to re-open with appropriate COVID precautions in place in September, and will be a viable, valuable option for augmenting online instruction.

PTS Can Help Plan Accessible Field Trips for Students With Special Needs

PTS can help your program plan and pull off fantastic field trips for children with autism and SPD when you’re ready to offer them.

Our therapists can give teachers and paraprofessionals practical ideas and resources to support these students during general education field trips. Targeted worksheets, personally tailored picture schedules, and new social stories can all help students stay flexible and have fun during field trips. 

We can also point you toward activities for students with autism and SPD near you that we’d recommend as field trip destinations. We know which organizations and institutions in the greater Delaware Valley are doing great jobs meeting these children’s special needs. We can help take the guesswork out of field trip planning!

Click here to discover even more ways PTS can help your program do the most good for more of your students.

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