Celebrating Earth Day with Sensitivity Issues

April 22 is Earth Day: an event recognized by nearly 200 countries worldwide; a day for making eco-friendly resolutions, picking up trash, planting trees, and otherwise honoring the natural world. Many places host community festivals with nature presentations, farmer’s markets, or outdoor expos.

Earth Day and other outdoor events are especially fun with children, who take naturally to running free and experiencing the outdoors. However, for some children (and adults), the enjoyment is hampered by sensitivity issues:

  • Autism can trigger intense reactions to scratchy surfaces, tickling/itching, sudden movements, or changes in temperature—all of which frequently come with an outdoor environment.
  • Autism also makes it difficult for many people to deal with crowds, which means a little Earth Day festival can go a long way.
  • Many people are painfully allergic to pollen or other elements of the outdoors. (In recent decades, this problem has gotten worse as the climate gets warmer, which means that pollen season comes earlier and stays later.)
  • Some disorders, such as Down syndrome and dementia, can make people prone to thoughtless wandering—and the outdoors is a dangerous place to get lost.

Health and Safety

Sensitivity needn’t stop anyone from enjoying Earth Day or staying safe during outdoor activities. The same accommodations that make navigating everyday life easier—noise-cancelling headphones, text-to-speech apps—can go with you while hiking, bird-watching, or browsing a native-plant sale. If you’re spending any length of time outdoors, assistive technology should also include weather apps and a means of keeping your group connected. (If your family includes “wanderers,” BridgingApps recommends the If I Need Help and Tile apps for extra security.)

Other health-and-safety tips:

  • Plan your outings in advance, with safety briefings for everybody. Social-stories apps may be helpful.
  • In some places, including Houston, April 22 is late enough in spring to be a potentially hot day. Be aware of heat injury risks, doubly so if anyone has special temperature sensitivities. Keep an eye on your weather app, take extra water, and avoid too much activity between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Spend time among the trees: it’s cooler and quieter there.
  • No matter how well you’ve planned, someone may become overwhelmed and want to leave before everyone else is ready. Have a contingency plan, such as one adult to take the overwhelmed child to a quieter place while another supervises the rest of the group. And remember, the worst thing you can do is scold anyone for being a wet blanket. Whether or not it shames them into staying longer, a cloud is guaranteed to hang over the rest of the day.

On to the fun stuff.

Nature on Your Favorite Device

While screens aren’t the first thing most people think about in connection with Earth Day, there are plenty of apps that guide in nature adventures and activities. A handful of our top recommendations are:

Other Fun Earth Day Activities

  • Do some gardening or plant a tree. (Check out this “sunflower house” project for growing your own private space outdoors.)
  • Set up a bird feeder.
  • Don’t drive where you can walk—or use a bike, human-powered scooter, or pair of skates. Make the most of traveling slower by really noticing your surroundings.
  • Watch birds/bees/butterflies/dragonflies/squirrels/rabbits/lizards/etc. Make a list of what you see.
  • Visit an outdoor crafts market. (You might find the perfect locally made fidget toy!)
  • Shop for locally grown foods, “green” soap, or refillable water bottles. Remember to bring your own bags. (Note: eco-friendly products are also less likely to aggravate allergies or asthma. Look for “fragrance free”—not just “unscented”—options to further reduce allergens and toxins.)
  • See if your local nature center or zoo has a webcam setup so you can watch their animals remotely in real time.
  • Make a sensory-stimulating nature collage or sculpture.
  • Read some books or poems about the natural world.
  • Make a video of one or more of the above activities, and post it on social media with an #EarthDay or #GreenFun hashtag.

Happy Earth Day to everybody!

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