If you enjoy watching HGTV as my daughter and I do, you're probably familiar with the idea of "staging" a home so as to minimize flaws and maximize positive qualities when prospective buyers come through. On shows like Designed to Sell and Get It Sold, designers target a couple of places in a house that will turn buyers off and make some minor changes -- replacing furniture, applying paint, transforming a cluttered storage area into a guest bedroom -- designed not so much to reconstruct the home as to sell buyers on its potential. None of this is done to make the home more useful to the current owners; often, they have to remove and store cherished stuff so the designers can repurpose their spaces.
I think "staging" in this way is a useful concept to keep in mind when you're trying to help your child find a place in the community. Often, community outings are disasters for our kids because we plan them in terms of what's convenient to us -- the equivalent of filling spaces with clutter and putting personal artwork on walls and keeping overstuffed sofas even when they overstuff rooms. Instead, we need to think about deliberately creating community experiences that allow our children to show to their best advantage.
That doesn't mean that we deny our children's quirks and don't expect the world to accommodate their challenges, just that we don't lead with them. And when we plan outings for our convenience -- swinging by the mall for a big sale on the way home from school, hitting the supermarket with a long grocery list just before lunch, going to a restaurant for a big meal on a busy night -- that's often exactly what we're doing, ensuring that the world sees nothing but the meltdowns and the tantrums. Along the way, we might also convince ourselves that our child is the equivalent of a house we can never sell.
What would it look like to plan a community outing in a way that shows off your child at his or her best? Just as designers look at color, space, and light, parents need to think about timing, places, and people. What time is your child most likely to be able to hold it together, and for how long? What time is the place you want to go the least hectic and most accessible? In which places are you most likely to find people who will welcome your child and act as community connections? Scout out your potential destinations to determine the answers to those questions, and put together a plan for a modest opportunity to get out in the world and get back safely. That is the complete and only goal.
So perhaps you go to the mall on a weekend morning, just to play in the indoor playspace or grab a cookie at the food court. Maybe you go to the supermarket for one item that your child enjoys and celebrate when you get out of there successfully. Maybe you go to a family restaurant in the late afternoon just for appetizers, in and out. Maybe you seek out a special-needs sports team where your child will meet people who are enthusiastic about working with her, and will say hi at the mall and the grocery store and the restaurant.
The behavioral version of staging is called "changing the environment," and it means arranging your child's world in such a way that things that cause failure are minimized and things that promote success are maximized. That's what you're doing here -- constructing an experience of success from your own plans, with your own sweat equity. You tinker and rearrange and slap on more paint until you get it right.
Ideally, you hope that your child will be able to expand the amount of time and the different places and people in the community, all the way to full involvement and inclusion. As with a house that needs love and care, starting from a place of apparent potential makes that more likely. The community needs to see your child first in a position of strength and success, and your child needs to see the outside world as something other than an overwhelming place of failure. You need to see the possibilities, too.
For more ideas on organizing positive outings for your child, read: