6 Ways for Neurodiverse Family Members on the Autism Spectrum to Avoid Summer Stress

Summer is a great time to relax, take a vacation, catch up with friends and loved ones, and make the most of what is hopefully nice weather. Unfortunately, as fun as many of these events can be, they can also create unexpected stressors for everyone (people who are and aren’t neurodiverse) that can alter what should be an enjoyable time. People with neurodiverse family members should also remember that Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), isn’t just something that is incorporated into your home. ABA is a great tool for any situation especially during summer travel and summer events.

What is the best way to handle stress in these situations?

With anything we do in life there’s always going to be a certain level of stress. The trick is to balance the stress that might come about in these activities with the benefits of doing the activities themselves. Follow-through is very important in these circumstances as they will expand the scope of future events. Even if a family member (or an entire family) doesn’t participate in all of the events, simply starting it and seeing how long it can be tolerated can be worked on later.
When we have time off, or even a little vacation time, it’s natural to want to make the most of it. There’s nothing wrong with this… unless you over-plan. Over-planning can make time off be unnecessarily stressful. You can cram in too many things you want to do or get done. Suddenly, your time off becomes a “To Do” list, and the events you’ve wanted to do are just an item you are checking off until you get to the next thing on your schedule. For people you are with that are neurodiverse, creating a list of what to expect at a certain event, family outing like a theme park, or a vacation destination IS a good idea. At the same time, explain to them that everybody is part of this trip so we need to be flexible if we don’t get to everything on the list.
We all want to make memories. Making them for our kids is of paramount importance. We want them to look back in reverence when they think of their summer days, as we feel these times will help shape them as they get older. However, trying to make everything they do over the summer seem like some amazing thing can be very stressful. It can ruin the intention of trying to make memories, and make what was supposed to be a special time something that we don’t want to remember at all. Also, balance your desire for your child’s amazing summer vacation with what you AND they want. In a lot of situations, young people just want to hang out with their friends somewhere without the watchful eye of their parents. Some young people get as much out of relaxing at the pool as they do going out to lunch with friends. (This doesn’t take into account the sensory benefits something like downtime provides). These are things to keep in mind as we manage the “bigness” of holidays and vacations.
Piggybacking on the idea of “Keeping Kids Activities Small,” don’t feel like you need to invite every friend to every activity. As much as your child might like all their friends to be part of going to a theme park, the movies, the pool, etc., this can create a lot of stress for you. Try to divide up friends with the activities they most want to do. This will help maximize everybody’s enjoyment. No matter how guilty you might (or another parent might potentially make you feel), the reality is that you can’t invite everyone to everything. So don’t even bother trying. People that are neurodiverse might even thrive in a situation where there’s only one or two preferred peers in the room. This will create social opportunities, deepen bonds between young people, and help make memories that can be built upon and remembered.
Money, as much as we try to not think about it when creating memories, especially in today’s inflationary times, can be a huge stressor. This is why you need to create a budget and do your best to stick to it. The reality is that sometimes, depending on the event (theme park, family vacation, etc.), you’re going to be a little over or a little under your budget. If you make a realistic plan, and then let your family know what the parameters of that are (you don’t need to bore them with every aspect of balance sheet minutiae), everyone will have a better idea of what they are going to be able to do during a given activity. Frontload people in your family when you go somewhere that they have a certain amount of money to spend. This will serve the double-goal of helping them budget their money and have realistic expectations of what they can do with it. Giving young people this independence will pay dividends as they start to work with money more throughout their lives.
This should seem like a no brainer but sometimes you and the family are just going to need to chill out. Sure, making memories is important but that isn’t the only thing. Summer and vacations are all about self-care. Even if it’s just for a half day, having a relaxing period of time to yourself can go a long way towards recharging you or your summer. And… sometimes we make our best memories when we are literally doing nothing. People that are neurodiverse will often thrive with downtime. The trick is to incorporate that into their schedule (whether at home or traveling) and explain that this is their time. They can do what they want so they should start thinking about it now. Many people with autism often express a fear of being bored. They don’t know what to do with unstructured time. By building this into their routine, they can start structuring their downtime in a way that actually makes it very beneficial for them and the entire family.
With all the planning that parents inevitably have to do to actually experience the events they’re putting together… Being in the moment is something that can, regretfully, get lost. Don’t let this happen to you. Yes, many summer events are about the kids, in the same way that your parents sacrificed to make your summers as young people about you. However, people never stop experiencing things. There’s no expiration date on feeling good and enjoying summer trips and vacations. Allow yourself to have a good time and don’t feel the need to do everything and take care of everyone. Enjoy the events you have set up no matter what. Encourage the young people in your life to do the same. People who are neurodiverse might need this reminder. At the same time, with a little structure, sometimes that can make being in the moment a time where they expose themselves and push up against their comfort zones. Ultimately, when tolerance for this is achieved it broadens out their lives and makes it possible for them to need even less structure.

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