How to Avoid Summer Meltdowns

June 26, 2015

in Ask Dr Lisa, Autism Challenges



“Dr. Lisa, My son loves the warm fun summer brings, but has such a difficult time going to the beach and family BBQ s where the surrounding elements create sensory overload for him. Almost every time my family goes to the beach or a BBQ, we have to leave due to my son’s high anxiety level and sensory issues that without failure, create meltdowns. These meltdowns are not fair to our other two children who get upset we don’t stay and have fun. It has come down to my husband going to the beach and BBQ s without my son and me so our other children can enjoy summer events. Do you have any suggestions on how we can help our son cope with the beach and BBQ settings? ” ~ Lisa, CA

Summertime brings so much fun with family and friends. It is a time we can relax, be less structured and spend some down time with loved ones. In fact, it seems as many of us hibernate all winter, coming out of our funk during the summertime. But, laid back fun summer days can also bring a sense of overwhelm and anxiety to a child with neurological disorders such as ADD, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders and SPD.

Meltdowns are quite common for these kids who although are ready to play, run around and have some summertime fun, may encounter surroundings that create too much sensory overload and anxiety. Pools, beaches, family BBQ s, amusement parks, concerts, fireworks, bonfires, family parties and visiting new places all can easily be scenarios for meltdowns.

Is there something you can do to prepare your child, perhaps preventing crying and crazy-town?

You bet.

Here are some great ideas on how to implement summer strategies so you and your child can feel secure about summertime fun, preventing meltdowns before they begin and stopping them as they progress.

The Beach

The beach brings sensory overload as well as the anxiety of this odd setting of hanging out with strangers in our bathing suits. The sand is a huge stimuli to the body as many kids cannot tolerate the feeling of it, especially when wet and sticking on the skin. Walking in the hot sand is simply enough to make your child want to go home. Putting feet into the water which can be cold is calming for many kids. An ocean moving in and out with waves is different from a pool or lake that is calm which can make a child  feel unsafe. The beach needs strategies that will foster a feeling of trust and security.

Ask yourself how can you make this strange place more comfortable to your child?

  • Bring a set of dry clothes to change into after getting wet as many kids cannot tolerate the feeling of a wet bathing suit with wet sand on them. This feeling can cause actual physical pain for them, so be prepared.
  • Bring an extra bathing suit as well that will be dry to put back on when your child wants to go back into the water. Dry the wet one in the sun and switch back and forth.
  • Think about buying a small pop up tent where your child can change comfortably and also use this tent as a relaxation hideout. You can put blankets and toys in here too.
  • Use powder to help get the sand off and soften the feeling of sand on the skin.
  • Bring healthy food, snacks and water to help prevent low blood sugar and hunger crankiness.
  • Build up to staying at the beach. Start off going for an hour and then build up to staying longer. Try to leave before your child is exhausted and is begging to go home.
  • Bring a favorite book or game for a sense of security.
  • Use swim shoes, swim socks and surf booties to overcome walking on the sand and touching the ocean floor.
  • Bring things to play with such as buckets, pails, matchbox cars, trucks, barbies etc..
  • Play with your child in the sand and water. Build sandcastles. Look for shells. Jump the waves. Make it fun, not expecting your child to make his/her own fun. Eventually he/she will.


My son would get sick from the sound of fireworks. The sound of them would create such physical pain for him and the terror associated with them would create a fear that made him run and hide. Today, he can handle them although he still does not like them, but it took years of helping him get there. Try some of our strategies, but know that if your child can’t handle fireworks, it is no big deal. There are so many other great summer things to do.

  • Use earplugs to soften the noise.
  • Watch from far away.
  • Create a safe place in your home if the fireworks are in your neighborhood. Try creating a hideout with pillows, blankets and toys in a closet to feel safe.
  • Do not force this. Do something else, like go for ice cream.

Parties and BBQ s

Summer BBQ s and parties are usually the best ones of the year. In fact, many of us wait all winter to get outside, grill and have people over. Whether you are throwing your own BBQ or attending one, understand that these events can create a huge amount of anxiety for a child on the Spectrum. Try some of the following tips that helped us help our son, Luke, learn how to like these events.

  •  Keep visits short. Even if you are throwing the BBQ, keep them short until your child can handle people over and some chaos for long periods of time.
  • Make a list of what your child will be doing or a mini schedule of the event so he/she knows what to expect.
  • Attend and leave a party early to lessen the exposure to people. It also is better to leave on a good note, making your child look forward to going there again.
  • Assist your child in interacting and playing with others. Leaving him alone can be scary and overwhelming. Build up to this by teaching your child how to walk around a party being social with others.
  • Never expect your child to know how to play with the other kids. Understand you child may not be comfortable or know how to talk and play with their friend’s friends that they really do not know. Role play and practice social skills before going.
  • Bring a favorite healthy food if you are not sure your child will like the foods serve. You may want to feed your child before going to avoid food problems and also bring one of your child’s favorite healthy foods so he/she does not feel out of place when it comes to eating.
  • Some BBQ s can get very crowded. Leave if it does. Too many people can just be a sensory overload. If there are too many kids in the pool or running around and parents are not watching, this may be just a situation you can’t control. Leaving teaches your child how to remove him/herself when overwhelm can’t be managed.
  • If you bring a favorite toy or doll, make sure you are prepared if another child wants to play with it or takes it. Think about this before bringing one. Talk to your child about this. Role play social skills before going.

Most of all, enjoy the summer with your child. Follow his/her lead. What is she/he comfortable doing? Make a list of all the things that he/she likes to do and would like to try. Grab a book at the library about all the fun summer-time things you can do together and let your child decide what fun to have!

Always slowly lead into new things, making sure you answer that really important question that lurks in your child’s mind:

What will happen next?

If you do so, your child’s anxiety will decrease and coping skills will sky rocket!

If you would like more summer strategy ideas,  you can download our Summer Strategies Podcast by simply clicking here! Also, you can start thinking about what preventive management plans your child may need this upcoming school year. I walk you through how to implement successful tools and strategies in the classroom in my book. I hope it helps you.

Photo is by Alena Ozerova @Dollarphoto

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