Create Successful Neurodiverse Family Outings Today: Time to connect with the great outdoors!

Neurodiverse family of 4 smiling and taking a selfie on the hood of a car on a sunny day in front of mountains on a family outing.After 18 months of dealing with the stress of indoor COVID living, using screens for social connections, and managing the stress of hybrid education, most of us have been hankering for some much needed rest and relaxation this summer. As we head into the last weeks of summer and for some, the early return to school, it’s worth taking some time to savor time outside as part of this reset. Connecting families with the great outdoors benefits individual family members and improves family bonds as a whole. Creating neurodiverse family outings that go smoothly and have everyone feeling like a happy camper, however, can be challenging. It’s important to find ways to improve family outings so they work for everyone in your family. Even small adventures can make a big difference. Let’s finish off the summer by making memories that are as positive as possible for everyone.

Why getting outdoors for neurodiverse family outings is worth it:

Spending time in nature is beneficial and fun for all of us: we can kick off our shoes and wade into the ocean, hike to a beautiful vista or just have a picnic in our own backyards. It’s especially great for neurodivergent kids–those youngsters with ADHD, LD, ASD, 2e and/or mental health issues. When any of us venture outside to a beach, park or any green spot, our entire demeanor shifts. We shed some of the stress of our daily lives, feel more relaxed and connect with the atmosphere around us. Children, teens and adults start to feel a welcome sense of spaciousness and freedom.

Neurodiverse family of 4 on a family outing sitting in the trunk of a hatchback, outside on a road during a sunset, wearing masks and backpacks, looking happy together.

For neurodivergent kids, especially those living with anxiety or depression, this freedom is often sorely needed. These children and adolescents need a chance to let go from the pressures of all things that they struggle to remember to do and from not feeling good enough at doing them. They spend so much time trying to focus, stay organized and correct their mistakes, that a break to wander, play and explore is a welcome (and necessary) relief.

On neurodiverse family outings and excursions outdoors, youngsters and adults alike can just be in the moment. They can enjoy the wide range of outside activities and explore the beauty of the natural environment. They may be happy just to be in a different physical space and do nothing at all. These experiences in nature can be very restorative for them and for you as parents, too. Family outings also provide ideal times for family fun as the ‘shoulds’ of our daily routines are transformed into games, explorations and discoveries.

Tips to having a successful summer family adventure with neurodiverse kids and teens:

Pick a location that offers something for everyone and doesn’t require much planning.

Talk with your family about the available options and what people want to do so you can all work together on making a good experience for everyone. Brainstorm first, and then negotiate any necessary compromises. These outings with your neurodiverse family involve the entire family, so make sure everyone’s voice is heard.

Limit your expectations.

Whatever happens has to be okay with you and okay with your family. Share your hopes for the day and listen to theirs. Be open to and make room for spontaneity and go with the flow. The less control you need to exert during the day, the better it will be for you and for everyone else. Remember to play!

Give your teen or child a few specific, simple tasks.

Neurodivergent girl with ADHD looking at a list to pack for a trip next to an empty suitcase on a bed with clothes laid on it.

In preparation for your neurodiverse family outing excursion, make a list and write down items that can be checked off. This gives kids more practice in developing those ever-needed executive planning and organizing skills. They’ll be less anxious about thinking they’ll arrive unprepared or left something important behind, too. Remind them to bring items that help them relax, or a go-to activity if times are tough.

Create some guidelines about appropriate behaviors for your day.

Limit these to 2 things, because the kids aren’t likely to remember more than that. These guidelines should revolve around safety primarily, and be logical and explicit (e.g. swim with another person, not alone, and ask beforehand; stay with the group when hiking; play around the picnic area where we can see you).  Remind your child or teen of these 2 guidelines as you arrive at the location. Then ask them to repeat them back to you. This verbal repetition signals to you that they’ve got it.

Focus on the positive.

Family of 4 sitting outside in front of a fire while camping, they're next to a glowing yellow tent by pine trees under a starry night sky.

There will likely be a blip or two on your neurodiverse family outings. Something may happen that may frustrate you or other family members. That’s a normal part of being together and doing an activity. Take a deep breath, focus on what’s most important and help your son or daughter recalibrate. Ask your family what would help them move on and/or make amends if there’s been an argument. Practice forgiveness and refocus everybody’s attention on the positive goals of the day such as exploring a different place or trying a new activity. This especially helps neurodiverse kids overcome the negative memory bias that often leads them to focus more on the negatives than the positives.

If they have trouble shifting, look around and notice something in their environment–an adaptation of “I spy”–to become more present. Say something like: “I see a hawk in the sky. How big do you think it is?” “Wow, that biker just rode by so quickly. I wonder how fast she is going?” “Can you pick a cool spot for our blanket so we can have lunch?” 

Enjoy your adventures!

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