How to Make Outdoor Gatherings Easier for Neurodivergent Kids and Families
Summer is here and that means more opportunities for outdoor gatherings with friends and family. But for parents and families with neurodivergent kids, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other neurodevelopmental differences, these events can pose some challenges. Neurodivergent kids might find outdoor gatherings overwhelming, stressful, or uncomfortable due to various factors such as sensory stimuli, social expectations, or unfamiliar environments.
Fortunately, there are some strategies that parents and families can use to make outdoor gatherings easier for their neurodivergent kids and themselves. In this article, we will share some tips to help you plan and enjoy all the fun and inclusive summer events. These tips are based on the experiences of real parents and families with neurodivergent kids, as well as the advice of experts and researchers in the field of neurodiversity.
Before attending a gathering, talk to your child about what to expect. This can include who will be there, what activities are planned, and what behaviors are expected. You can also show them pictures or videos of the venue or the people they will meet. This can help them prepare mentally and emotionally for the event and reduce anxiety.
According to Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and parenting expert, preparing your child for a social event can help them feel more confident and comfortable. She says: "When kids know what to expect, they're less likely to be anxious or act out. They can also rehearse how they'll handle any challenges that might arise."
Lisa did this when her son Jake was invited to a birthday party at a park. She showed him pictures of the park and the birthday boy on her phone. She also explained to him what games they would play and how he should behave. Jake felt more confident and excited about going to the party after seeing and hearing what it would be like.
If your child has a tendency to abscond, consider using safety tools such as ID bracelets with your contact information. Make sure they understand the importance of staying within a certain boundary. You can also assign a trusted adult or sibling to keep an eye on them at all times as well.
A study by the Interactive Autism Network found that 49% of children with ASD have a history of wandering or eloping from a safe environment. This can pose serious risks for their safety and well-being. Therefore, it is important to take precautions to prevent or reduce the chances of your child wandering off.
David gave his daughter Mia an ID bracelet with his phone number on it when they went to a family reunion at a lake house. He also told her to stay within the fenced area of the house and not go near the water without him. He asked his brother to watch over her while he was busy with other relatives.
Arriving early can help your child adjust to the environment before it gets crowded. They can choose a spot where they feel comfortable and safe. They can also explore the surroundings and get familiar with the layout of the venue.
Dr. Markham says that arriving early can help your child feel more in control and less overwhelmed by the social situation. She says: "When kids arrive early, they have a chance to get used to the setting and the people before it gets too noisy or busy. They can also claim a spot where they feel comfortable and secure."
Amy arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled time when her son Noah was invited to a barbecue at a friend's backyard. She helped Noah find a cozy spot under a tree where he could sit and play with his toy cars. She also showed him where the bathroom and the snacks were. Noah felt more relaxed and happier in his spot as more guests arrived.
Bring Familiar Items
Bringing a familiar toy or blanket can provide a sense of security and comfort in a new or crowded environment. It can also serve as a distraction or a coping mechanism if your child feels bored or overwhelmed.
Dr. Markham says that bringing familiar items can help your child feel more at home and less anxious in a new setting. She says: "When kids have something familiar with them, they feel more connected to their home and their family. They also have something to focus on or play with if they get bored or stressed."
Kevin brought along his daughter Zoe's favorite stuffed animal and blanket when they went to a picnic at a park. Zoe cuddled with them whenever she felt nervous or tired. She also used them to play pretend games with her cousins.
Find a quiet area at the gathering where your child can retreat to if they feel overwhelmed. This can serve as a calming down space where they can relax and recharge. You can also bring some soothing items such as books, music, or fidget toys to help them calm down.
Dr. Markham says that having a quiet zone can help your child cope with sensory overload or emotional stress. She says: "When kids have a place to go where they can be alone and quiet, they can calm themselves down and regain their balance. They can also use some soothing items to help them relax and feel better."
Sarah found a quiet corner in the lobby where her son Leo could go if he needed a break when they went to a wedding at a hotel. She also brought some headphones and an iPad with his favorite songs and games. Leo enjoyed the wedding but also appreciated having his own space to unwind.
Regularly check in with your child to assess their comfort levels. Recognize signs of distress or discomfort and address them immediately. You can also use a rating scale or a visual cue to help your child communicate their feelings. For example, you can use a green-yellow-red card system to indicate how they are feeling.
Dr. Markham says that checking in with your child can help you monitor their mood and needs. She says: "When you check in with your child, you show them that you care about how they are feeling and that you are there to help them if they need it. You can also use a simple system to help them express their feelings without words."
Maria gave her son Alex three cards: green for good, yellow for okay, and red for bad when they went to a carnival with some friends. She told him to show her the card that matched his mood whenever she asked him how he was doing. She also told him to show her the red card if he wanted to leave or needed help. Alex used the cards to express his feelings throughout the day.
If your child has specific dietary preferences, bring some of their favorite foods along. This ensures they have something they like to eat, which can add to their comfort. You can also check with the host beforehand if they have any food allergies or sensitivities and request for some accommodations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children with ASD are more likely to have food selectivity or aversion than neurotypical children. This can make it challenging for them to eat a variety of foods or try new foods. Therefore, it is important to bring some familiar foods that your child likes and can eat safely.
Emma brought some of her son Ryan's favorite sandwiches and cookies when they went to a potluck at church. She also asked the host if there were any nuts or dairy products in the other dishes, as Ryan was allergic to them. She made sure Ryan had a plate of food that he liked and was safe for him to eat.
If possible, plan structured activities that your child enjoys. This can keep them engaged and lessen the chances of feeling overwhelmed. You can also involve them in the planning process and let them choose some of the activities they want to do. Some examples of structured activities are scavenger hunts, crafts, games, or sports.
Dr. Markham says that structured activities can help your child have fun and socialize with others. She says: "When kids have something to do that they enjoy, they are more likely to participate and interact with others. They can also learn new skills and make new friends."
James planned some fun games for his son Ethan and his friends when they went to a pool party at a neighbor's house. He asked Ethan what games he wanted to play and helped him make a list. He also brought some pool toys and prizes for the winners. Ethan had a blast playing with his friends and showing off his skills.
Sensory Considerations - Sound and Light
Be aware of sensory stimuli at the event. Loud music and bright lights can be overwhelming for neurodivergent children. Plan for ways to minimize these triggers. This can include bringing noise-cancelling headphones or sunglasses, or choosing a quieter or shaded area of the venue.
A study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that children with ASD have heightened sensory responses to auditory and visual stimuli compared to typically developing children. This can make them more sensitive to loud noises or bright lights, which can cause discomfort or distress. Therefore, it is important to plan for ways to reduce these sensory triggers.
Olivia brought some noise-cancelling headphones and sunglasses for her daughter Lily when they went to a fireworks show at a park. She also found a spot on a hill where they could watch the fireworks from a distance. Lily enjoyed the colorful display without being bothered by the loud noises or bright flashes.
Sensory Considerations - Touch and Smell
Some neurodivergent children might be sensitive to different textures and smells. Be prepared with solutions for these possible triggers. Bring along sensory toys or a familiar-scented blanket or handkerchief that can provide comfort for your child during the event. You can also avoid wearing strong perfumes or colognes that might bother your child.
A study by the University of California-San Diego found that children with ASD have altered olfactory processing and preferences compared to typically developing children. This can make them more sensitive to different smells, which can affect their mood and behavior. Therefore, it is important to plan for ways to avoid or cope with these sensory triggers.
Jack brought some slime and squishies for his daughter Ava to play with when they went to a family reunion. He also sprayed some lavender scent on her handkerchief that she could smell if she felt anxious. He also avoided wearing any aftershave or deodorant that might irritate her nose.
Advocate and Educate
Advocate for your child’s needs and educate others at the gathering about neurodivergence. This can foster understanding and inclusion. You can also share some tips or strategies with the host and other guests on how to interact with your child in a respectful and supportive way.
According to the Autism Society of America, advocacy and education are key components of promoting acceptance and inclusion of neurodivergent people in society. They say: "By advocating for your child and educating others about neurodivergence, you can help create a more positive and supportive environment for your child and others like them."
Hannah talked to the host and some of the guests about her son Ben's neurodivergence when they went to a graduation party at a friend's house. She explained to them what it meant and how they could help him feel comfortable and included. She also gave them some suggestions on how to communicate with him and what to avoid doing or saying.
Outdoor gatherings can be fun and enjoyable for everyone, including neurodivergent kids and families. By following these tips, you can make sure your child has a positive and memorable experience this summer.
Behavioral Health Consulting Services stands by your side in this journey. Our dedicated team provides tailored resources and strategies that help your neurodivergent child navigate and enjoy social gatherings fully. We believe in not just managing challenges, but fostering an environment that acknowledges and celebrates every unique individual.
So, let's make this summer memorable for all the right reasons. Embrace the power of understanding, preparation, and love, turning every outdoor gathering into a celebration of neurodiversity. After all, every child deserves to experience the magic of summer.
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