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Navigating Summer Parties and Gatherings

Navigating Summer Parties and Gatherings

Navigating Summer Parties and Gatherings

Summer parties and gatherings can be both exciting and challenging for families affected by autism. The laughter, socializing, and delicious food that come with these events are all part of the joys of summer. However, for children on the autism spectrum, the same festivities can present a unique set of obstacles.

Sensory overload, triggered by loud noises, crowds, and unfamiliar environments, can quickly turn a fun outing into an overwhelming experience. Moreover, the typical party fare often includes an abundance of gluten, dairy, sugar, and artificial ingredients like food dyes, heavily processed foods, and inflammatory oils – all of which can be problematic for children with autism who may have sensitivities or intolerances to these "big baddies."

But here's the good news: by understanding these challenges, preparing accordingly, and seeking support, autism families can navigate summer social events with greater ease and confidence. It's all about having the right strategies and tools in place to accommodate your child's unique needs while still embracing the joys of summer socializing.

In this guide, we'll walk you through practical tips for managing sensory overload, making informed food choices, and creating a supportive environment for your child at summer parties and gatherings. Our goal is to empower you with the knowledge and resources you need to create positive, memorable experiences for your entire family.

So, whether you're RSVP-ing to a backyard barbecue or a Fourth of July celebration, know that you're not alone in navigating these challenges. With a little preparation and the right mindset, you can help your child thrive in social settings while still staying true to their dietary needs and sensory preferences. 

Preparation is Key

With a clear understanding of the potential challenges your child may face at summer parties and gatherings, you can begin to prepare for a successful experience. The key is to be proactive, communicative, and well-equipped with the right tools and strategies.

Be Informed

One of the most important steps in preparing for a social event is to communicate with the host. Reach out to discuss the event plan, including the schedule, location, activities, and any accommodations your child may need such as if there is a quiet and calm space you can take them to during the event if needed. This conversation can help you anticipate potential challenges and work with the host to set yourself up for success.

Familiarize Your Child

Take the time to familiarize your child with what to expect at the event. Explain the purpose of the gathering, who will be there, and what activities will take place. You can create a social story or visual schedule that outlines the event in a clear, step-by-step format. This preparation can help alleviate anxiety and provide a sense of predictability for your child.

Pack Your Own Healthy Food Options 🎒

Pack safe, healthy, and familiar food options for your child. Preparing snacks or meals that adhere to your child's dietary needs and preferences can help prevent potential issues related to food sensitivities, aversions, or other triggers. More on this later when we talk about navigating food, but worth mentioning here as a critical preparation step you can take to set yourself up for success.

By taking these few simple steps to prepare for summer parties and gatherings, you can help your child feel more confident, comfortable, and supported in social situations. Remember, the goal is not to eliminate all challenges, but rather to equip your family with the tools and strategies needed to navigate them successfully.

Managing Sensory Overload

Even with thorough preparation, children with autism may still experience sensory overload during summer parties and gatherings. As the parent, it's our job to be attuned to our child's unique signs of sensory distress and have strategies in place to manage these situations effectively.

You know the common signs to be on the lookout for, things like: covering their ears or eyes, stimming, withdrawal, expressing agitation or irritability, crying, screaming, or exhibiting meltdown behaviors. 

Take Breaks in a Quiet, Calm Space

If you notice any signs of sensory overload and distress, don’t be afraid to pull them aside and to the quiet and calm space you asked the host about before the event. Take these breaks as needed. This space should be away from the main activity and offer a sense of comfort and security.

It’s OK to Leave

In some cases, despite your best efforts, your child may become too overwhelmed to continue participating in the event. If this happens, don’t feel bad about prioritizing your child's well-being. Kindly excuse yourself from the gathering and take your child to a more comfortable environment where they can fully decompress.

Remember, managing sensory overload is not about "fixing" your child's behavior or forcing them to conform. It's about understanding their unique needs, providing the support they need, and giving them a chance to participate in social events. An attempt is a win!

Navigating Food

Food is often a central part of summer parties and gatherings, but for children with autism, navigating the array of options can be a daunting task. Many common party foods, such as pizzas, hotdogs, and cookies, are laden with gluten, dairy, sugar, and artificial additives – all of which can exacerbate autism-related symptoms and digestive issues.

When my son was really struggling, food affected his symptoms. It often was the trigger for meltdowns. I always made it a priority to ensure he was eating well, or as well as he possibly could be in every situation.

Eat Before

One of my favorite tricks is to start by ensuring your child eats a balanced, nutritious meal at home before the event. This will help stabilize their blood sugar, reduce hunger-related irritability, and decrease the likelihood of overindulging in problematic party foods.

Make Tradeoffs 🌭➡️🍗

If your child eats from the available party spread, help them make the best possible decisions. Encourage them to select whole-food-based options and, when possible, opt for foods that are naturally free from gluten, dairy, added sugars, and artificial additives. Depending on what’s available at the event you’re attending, your tradeoffs could look something like this: 

  • Grilled, baked, or roasted meats like chicken skewers or burgers without buns INSTEAD OF processed options like hotdogs, chicken nuggets, or pizza.
  • Whole-food-based sides like potatoes, corn on the cob, or green salads INSTEAD OF macaroni salad, processed chips, or crackers.
  • Choose no sauces/condiments or a clean sauce/condiment you brought yourself INSTEAD OF sauces, dressings, and condiments filled with artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, inflammatory oils, and loads of sugar.
  • Water or flavored seltzer INSTEAD OF sugary sodas.
  • Fresh fruit or fruit-based popsicles INSTEAD OF sugary cakes, cookies, or ice cream.

When possible, opt for foods that are naturally free from gluten, dairy, added sugars, and artificial additives. Simple swaps like asking for the dressing on the side of a salad or removing the bun from a burger can go a long way. The key is to maintain a balance and keep the overall trajectory moving towards gut-supporting, nutrient-dense choices.

Bring Healthy and Familiar Options

If you want to take things a step further, you can opt to bring along safe, healthy, and familiar food options that your child enjoys. Having these alternatives on hand will give your child a sense of comfort and control over their food choices while avoiding the pitfalls of poor choices often found at social gatherings. This may include: 

  • Cut-up organic fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and apple slices.
  • Raw vegetable sticks such as carrots, celery, and cucumber with a clean hummus or guacamole dip.
  • Gluten-free crackers made from almond flour or cassava flour (when shopping, read ingredients and try to avoid inflammatory oils like canola oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, corn oil, soybean oil, vegetable oil, and peanut oil), like Mary’s Gone Crackers.
  • A clean or homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds, and unsweetened dried fruit.
  • Organic, nitrate-free turkey or grass-fed beef rollups made with grain-free tortilla wraps, like Siete.
  • Clean grain-free, seed oil-free, chips like Siete or Boulder Canyon.
  • Organic, non-GMO popcorn like LesserEvil or Trader Joe’s Organic Popcorn with Olive Oil .
  • Clean gluten-free cookies, like Simple Mills, Siete, Mary's Gone Kookies, or Emmy’s Organics.

Digestive Enzymes Can Help

It's important to remember that while making the best choices possible, it's likely that your child will still consume some of the "big baddies" like gluten, dairy, sugar, and artificial junk. To support their digestive system and minimize potential reactions, consider giving your child a digestive enzyme supplement, such as TriEnza Digestive Enzyme Chewables or Aspire Nutrition's Bio-Heal Pro+, before the event.

And, of course, we recommend not missing your daily supplement routine! 

Progress, Not Perfection

Above all, approach food challenges with patience, understanding, and a focus on progress over perfection. Celebrate the healthy choices your child does make, and use any setbacks as learning opportunities for future events.

Remember, the goal is not to achieve a "perfect" diet but rather to make informed, balanced choices that support your child's unique needs and promote their overall well-being.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun

Navigating summer parties and gatherings as an autism family can be both challenging and rewarding. By understanding the unique sensory, dietary, and social needs of your child, you can proactively plan for success and create a lot of fun for your whole family.

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating summer social events as an autism family. What works for one child may not work for another, and that's okay. The key is to remain open, adaptable, and attuned to your child's unique needs.

So as you head out to your next summer party or gathering, remember to pack your sensory kit, your healthy snacks, and your sense of humor. Embrace the joys, navigate the challenges, and know that you are doing an incredible job supporting your child's unique needs and helping them shine their brightest.

Happy summer, and know that Aspire Nutrition is always here to support you!

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