The fool-proof formula for meltdown-free outings

The secret to meltdown-free outings…

Is actually a pretty simple formula, but it’ll save you a ton of headaches (and save your child a ton of distress). Whether you’ve got an autistic child, an ADHD kiddo, a SPD/sensory-sensitive kid, or even a neurotypical child, these tips will help you have a successful* trip to the store, playground, or anywhere else you need to go.

(Please keep in mind, these are general tips. I am happy to provide more specific tips for specific locations/outings, if you comment below.)

Here’s the secret to meltdown-free outings (as tested and tried by me and my “level 3 nonverbal” kiddo):

  • Make sure your child has slept/rested prior to going out. Best times for outings are early in the morning after your kiddo first wakes up, or after their nap. (Pro tip: these are also usually the least busy times for most businesses.)
  • Full bellies help kids regulate. Be sure your child has eaten prior to leaving, and take emergency snacks with you (or be prepared to pick up something while you’re out). Stay on top of your child’s hunger, it can make the difference in preventing meltdowns.
  • Clean bottom patrol. Make sure your child has a clean diaper/pull-up on before going anywhere. If they’re potty trained, be sure they’ve used the restroom. Always bring diapering supplies, even if it’s just a short trip.
  • Take breaks. Let your kiddo stretch their legs, shake out their silliness, do jumping jacks, run around a little, or whatever they need to do to manage their energy. Take favorite toys with you, and allow your child to stim as much as they need.
  • Ignore the Judgy McJudgersons. Don’t worry about what people think of your family. What matters is that your family is spending time together and that your children’s needs are being met.
  • Dress comfy. You’ll all feel more relaxed if you dress comfortably instead of for show. Yes, you can take your child to a play or fancy restaurant wearing sweatpants. Their comfort is more important than FancyPants McGee and their blank stares.
  • Use visual aids. A visual schedule, timers, verbal reminders, and countdowns can be a godsend for transitions. Use everything you can to help your child understand where you’re going and when you’ll be leaving. A lot of transition-related meltdowns are due to anxiety, because your child doesn’t know where you’re going or what’s happening.
  • Be extremely patient. This applies whether your child is “verbal”/nonspeaking or not. Remember, outings are even harder for them than they are for you. So reduce as much pressure on them as possible. Remove sensory triggers whenever possible. See things from their perspective. Be on their team. People-ing is hard!

If your child is nonverbal/nonspeaking, and/or elopes/runs away (like mine)…

  • Transfer your child directly from the car to the grocery cart or stroller. If you’re going somewhere (like the playground) that they’ll be roaming free, choose enclosed areas you can get to them easily, like fenced or indoor playgrounds. (It’s always best to figure out *why* your child elopes, but if you’re not sure why, these are some tried and true strategies to keep them safe.)
  • Use all the visual aids, especially a first/then board. Talk about things and show your child videos beforehand. Let them know what they’ll be doing.
  • Use sign language and labeling. Hopefully you’ve already incorporated some simple sign language and labeling into your child’s every day life. By “labeling”, I mean pointing to things and telling your child what they are in a relaxed and fun way. This helps expand vocabulary a lot — and remember, even if your child isn’t *saying* words, doesn’t mean they don’t *know* words. (There’s a difference between vocalized vocabulary and latent vocab). For example, my son knows “car”, “house”, “toys” (our codeword for the store), “eat”, and “slide” (our codeword for the playground. With this base of communication, I can tell him “We’re going to eat and then slide!” and he knows exactly what I’m talking about and can get excited. He knows “car” is the way we will go do those things.

*“Successful” doesn’t mean that your child has no challenges or that absolutely no meltdowns happen. It’s important to reframe what a “successful” outing looks like for you. Successful to me is my son quickly recovering from distress and things not turning into a meltdown. Him having fun and enjoying himself the majority of the time is also successful in my book. (Even better if he enjoys himself the whole time!) The most important part is meeting your child’s needs so they don’t have to meltdown. I can recall people staring at us funny in Sam’s Club once; we were praising my son for how well he was doing in the store. To outsiders, it looked like a kid aggressively throwing things onto the conveyor belt, making loud noises, etc. But to me, it was a huge win! It was a huge success! Because he’d been regulated and happy for the majority of the trip, he was just starting to get a bit restless, and we were out the door to go home. To me, that was major progress, because I knew what it *used* to be like when we’d go out. It used to be multiple meltdowns and tantrums and him being miserable the whole time. It’s taken years of employing this strategy to get here, and sometimes I still forget a step or two and it causes him distress. So accept growth as success too. Your child is doing the best they can in a world that is not built for them. You’re doing your best, too!


things i’m no longer doing

  1. Forcing myself to make eye contact. I’m only going to make eye contact with people I’m feeling connected to; people I want to look in the eye and exchange moments with. People I care about, during moments I care about. I’m not forcing myself to make arbitrary eye contact with people just because I was raised thinking that’s the “respectful” thing to do. I don’t care if you think that makes me seem shady or insecure. I’m not making myself do it anymore. And I only just recently realized I never liked it anyway lol.
  2. Being embarrassed by my selective eating. Feeling bad about it. I’m picky. I can only tolerate so many foods or certain types. I’d love to eat the lovely salad you prepared, but I can’t, and I don’t feel as if I should feel bad about it anymore. I am who I am and I can eat what I can eat. I challenge myself regularly to try new things and sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. I won’t feel bad or apologize for being a selective eater. I can only handle what I can handle, and I’m not adding stress and pressure to my life over food. I’ll enjoy the foods that give me comfort and taste/feel good to me.
  3. Needing more clarity or direction. My whole life I’ve been fussed at by authority figures for not understanding subtlety, passive instructions, or signals to do something. I’ve been reprimanded for not understanding things that weren’t explained to me, or weren’t explained in a way I understood. I’m not going to feel bad for asking for more information, or seeking another example or way to learn. “The garbage needs to be taken out” is not the same thing as “please take the garbage out”. No, I don’t already know how to do that. No, I’m not already familiar with that concept (just because most people already are). My neurodivergent brain needs more details than that. My brain needs you to be blunt and direct about what you expect from me and how you want me to do it. I’m not going to feel bad for asking for clarity or needing more direction. I’m not going to stress myself out over having to ask questions or worrying that people will be upset with me. I’m not going to settle for passive direction. If you need me to do something, tell me, and tell me how (if necessary), or else it just won’t get done. (And that won’t be my fault).
  4. Being afraid to ask for help or say I’m overwhelmed, or need things to slow down. I’m not going to feel bad or dumb for needing a moment to catch my breath. For needing a moment to calm my buzzing mind. For needing time to process things. In the words of twenty one pilots, “I move slow”. I won’t apologize or feel bad about myself for needing a minute, or asking for help. Please rephrase that question for me so I can understand it better. This store is too much for me, I need to hide for a moment or leave. That TV is too loud, I’m turning it down. This is too much for me to take right now, can we stop or eliminate one thing? My plate is too full; what can I get rid of?
  5. Taking responsibility for intrusive thoughts. I didn’t think you, I didn’t want you — go away. You’re not my problem or my fault. Thinking you doesn’t make me a bad person. You showed up unannounced without my permission. I will turn you over to the Lord and I will move on with my life. I will not dwell on you for one moment longer.
  6. Worrying about being misunderstood. If you don’t understand me that’s okay. I know my intentions. If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize. But I can’t keep worrying about how I’m being perceived (unless it’s a situation in which I think I may have hurt someone’s feelings or something). I can’t keep exhausting myself imagining what you think or feel about me. The truth is I don’t know, and I can’t know. So I’ll leave it up to you to tell me what you think and feel about me. I’m done guessing.
  7. Chasing people. If you want to be around me, be around me. If you care, show it. I have no more time to devote to people who do not devote theirs to me. I have no more patience to accept less than being treated with kindness and respect. There was a time I would’ve hunted you down just to beg for a crumb off your metaphorical table. Now I will be kind but I will not be a dullard. If I see there’s no effort being made I will dismiss myself. You will not miss my presence anyway, cause you never cared in the first place. When you show me you do not value me, I will believe you the first time. I will not cast my pearls before swine. You will get no more pieces of me. Every bit of me must be earned. I will restrict access to myself. Not to be closed off or rigid, but to take care of myself. I will not become hard. I will become smarter. I will no longer love what hates me. I will no longer pine for what hurts me. I will not die for what is killing me.
  8. Forgoing my health. I’m not going to add unnecessary stress to myself. I’m not going to push myself when I don’t feel well. I’m not going to induce a breakdown. I’m not going to neglect sleep or rest. I’m going to sleep when I’m tired. I’m going to eat when I’m hungry. I’m gonna pee when I need to pee!
  9. Compartmentalizing myself. I’m gonna bring all the facets of me together for a reunion. I love Jesus, I love people, I love art, I love literature, I’m morbid, I’m weird, I’m a lot of things. I have a lot of interests. And for so long I thought I couldn’t be and do all those things at once. I had a face for everyone I met. Who do I need to be around this person? Who do I need to be in this setting? I went by what I thought was appropriate and acceptable for the audience. I was terrified what people would think of me if they saw the other parts of me. But all of those parts are me. All of them make me who I am. I’m not ashamed of them anymore.
  10. Giving easy answers. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I’m fine because it’s socially acceptable. I don’t want easy answers from you, either. I want us both to be honest. I want us all to be honest with each other. Say “I’m hurting and need help” or say “I’m in a bad mood and don’t know why” or say “I’m actually having a surprisingly good day”. Say anything but “good, how are you?”
  11. Apologizing for being different. I’m not difficult. Peculiar, yes. Weird, proudly. Unique, sure. But I’m not gonna feel bad or apologize or long for normalcy anymore. I like who I am, quirks and all. I love aspects of myself, and there are others I still wrestle with. I’m not gonna feel bad about myself for not being “normal”, and I’m not going to long for “normal” anymore. Instead, I long for what feels right and natural to me. I embrace whatever God has for me, even if it’s unconventional, because I know it’ll be what’s best and most fulfilling for me. Me. doesn’t have to fit for anyone else. Just has to fit for me.

I’ve always been neurodivergent. I’ve always been odd. I’ve apologized and tried to compensate for my differentness for so long; but not anymore. I’m okay with being me — exactly how God made me. Even if I have a long way to go and a lot to learn. I’ll probably remember more things that need to go on this list after I hit “publish”… but I realize I’ve been upset and apologizing and feeling bad about myself for a large portion of my life simply because of these things…these things about me that aren’t bad but I somehow convinced myself they were…maybe because they inconvenience other people, or because they require more effort. But I’m not too much. I’m not bad. My brain works differently. My heart works differently. And that’s okay. I’m not gonna apologize for being me anymore.

“go splash?” | autistic adventures

The Boy, 5, saw a photo of a waterfall on the front of a brochure. He pointed to it and said “go splash?” So naturally I had to figure out which waterfall that was.

The Boy is autistic, and while he was diagnosed “nonverbal” at 2, he has a great vocabulary now and uses a lot of meaningful speech. When he asks for something nicely, he usually gets it. (He still communicates sometimes through grunts, screams, etc.)

Thankfully, I discovered the waterfall in question was a short hike away from an easily accessible parking lot. My greatest fear in taking him anywhere is always his safety. He is an eloper and has difficulty transitioning; best case scenario, he holds my hand the whole time and leaves of his own accord with his head held high. Worst case scenario, I have to carry him out while he’s crying and screaming (and I haven’t the upper body strength lol).

We had an amazing adventure and he did so much better than I could’ve ever anticipated. He always surprises me with how much he can do. He got upset when it was time to leave, which was honestly only due to the fact he was getting more bold about climbing the rocks, and it was dangerous. When he stops following verbal cues and instructions, that’s a sign to me he’s “hitting the wall” and it’s time to go. (Injuries for both of us happen beyond the wall lol.)

I know a lot of parents of children with autism feel they can’t even leave the house because of how challenging it will be for their kids. But I want you to know that your child is capable of so much, if only you give them the chance.

There’s a science behind our adventures, though.

First, we never go anywhere without him having adequate sleep and a full belly.

Second, I work with him constantly (but not in an overbearing way) about safety, verbal and visual cues (“slowly”, “careful”, “wait”, etc.) If that foundation isn’t there, it’s definitely going to make keeping them safe in a public place more difficult.

Thirdly, I let him lead in pretty much every situation. I am convinced he may have ODD, so giving him choice and allowing him to be a little more independent helps him stay regulated and cooperative. I let him go where he wanted at the waterfall, but I was always right there with him to help him and keep him safe.

He got frustrated at a couple points because he wanted to go under the waterfall and couldn’t (the rocks were too slippery).

I’m always amazed by how much we really do get to experience together, and I’m so grateful to make memories with him.

Parents, please give your child a shot. With preparation, patience, and adjusting your expectations a little bit, you and your autistic or Sensory processing challenged child can do all sorts of things.

Will people maybe stare at you funny? Sure. That’s their problem. You’re making memories. Enjoy your child. What’s the worse that can happen? A meltdown and a crying car ride home? But what if the worst doesn’t happen?

Please note, there may be some things that just aren’t safe for your child at the age or level of support they’re at right now. For example, I know I can’t take my son on a long hike, or to high elevations right now. He simply lacks the awareness of his surroundings to keep him from falling or getting hurt. But we do go to beaches, swimming pools, movie theaters, stores, indoor and outdoor playgrounds (as long as they are completely fenced/enclosed), and back when he was younger, lots of hiking and walking trail trips! He even went to our relative’s house who has a huge collection of breakable figurines lol. (That’s like catnip for some autistic kids). He was remarkably self-controlled all the way until the end when he got tired and hungry. I’m so proud of him.

Enjoy photos from our wild & wonderful adventures in West Virginia.