by Deanna Toner, PhD
As we approach the hot summer months, we will undoubtedly hear more news about the effects of climate change. The American Psychological Association (APA) reported that climate change is having a serious impact on youth mental health. For autistic youth and their families, the effects of climate change can be especially challenging. Below are some considerations for coping with climate change this summer:
Sensory Sensitivities: Climate change causes widespread changes in weather patterns. These changes can mean hotter temperatures, increased humidity, and more storms and extreme weather events. Individuals on the autism spectrum may be affected by the effects of climate change, as sensory sensitivities to light, sound, scent, textures, temperature/heat, and pressure/humidity may be heightened. As we experience more significant weather-related changes this summer, it may be helpful to make a plan to support your child’s sensory needs. For example, if your child is sensitive to bright sunlight, can you bring dark sunglasses or find an indoor or shaded place for them to play? If your child is sensitive to the smell or feeling of sunscreen, will they wear an odorless sunscreen or a UV shirt and a hat? During heat waves, can you plan to only go outside in the early morning or evening hours or plan indoor activities in air-conditioned spaces? Creatively and proactively addressing sensory sensitivities may help your child engage in the summer activities they enjoy most.
Storm Preparation: A common concern for families with autistic children and teens is storms. Having a storm emergency may mean hearing loud claps of thunder, losing power, experiencing potential hurricanes, or even evacuating your home. These experiences can be scary on their own, but they can be especially stressful for autistic children and teens who may struggle with changes in their routines, rely on AAC devices to communicate, and/or have restricted diets. It can be helpful to develop a plan for storms and unexpected emergencies. You may consider using a social story to help prepare your child for storms, having nonperishable preferred food items in storage, and/or having a battery packs or solar chargers for devices on hand. Also having an evacuation plan can be helpful. Some shelter locations are better equipped to support neurodiverse children and teens. You can contact your local Red Cross to learn more about which shelters can best accommodate your child’s needs.
Anxiety and Distress: Many young people are feeling anxious, sad, and angry about climate change. They may worry about the future and whether they will be okay as climate change accelerates. If you or your child are struggling with these thoughts and feelings, please know that it is normal to be worried or sad about stressful events. Climate change is a real threat, and it makes sense that many of us are anxious and distressed about it. If your child is expressing anxiety, there are some things you can do to help:
- Listen and Validate Concerns: Listen to your child’s feelings and tell them that their worries are understandable. Be curious about their thoughts and emotions and begin a conversation about climate change.
- Reduce “doom scrolling:” Help your child set limits on “doom-scrolling.” When we feel anxious or distressed, we sometimes feel compelled to keep reading or watching news coverage of stressful events. But this information does not often help us in the long run; it may make us feel more anxious and make it more difficult for us to engage in meaningful actions. Instead, set time limits. For example, it may be helpful to only check the news once a day for 30 minutes.
- Increase time in nature: Encourage your child to spend time in nature. Being in nature can have a positive effect on our mental health. Families can walk through the woods, bird watch, or learn about particular plants. Taking time to connect with nature using all five of our senses can help us to be present and reduce our anxiety.
- Practice coping strategies: Encourage your child to practice coping strategies, such as taking deep breaths, doing progressive muscle relaxation, or using self-talk to manage their feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Seek social support: Encourage your child to find trusted people they can talk to about their anxiety. Finding a community of family, teachers, and peers can be an important source of support for young people.
- Look for role models: For many young people, Greta Thunberg, a teen climate activist who described autism as her “superpower,” has been a source of inspiration. You can also look to local role models in your community who are working to address climate change.
- Take action: There are many ways young people can take action. They can recycle, join clubs or organizations focused on climate activism, sign petitions, plant vegetables or trees, write to their local newspapers, or raise money for climate causes.
- Find professional support: If your child’s anxiety or distress is becoming difficult for them to manage, you may consider finding a therapist who can support your child in developing effective coping strategies and engaging in meaningful, valued actions.
Climate change can cause feelings of stress and anxiety for many of us, but taking action can help us cope with our emotions. Talk with others, make plans for unexpected emergencies, support sensory needs, and engage in fun summer activities that bring joy to your life. Wishing you a happy summer!