Happy summer! Happy Independence Day! Another holiday is upon us. The 4th of July may be a holiday you observe or one you choose to ignore? One you really enjoy or one you find irritating? Many 4th of July celebrations include family get-togethers, parades, BBQ’s and fireworks. What are your special plans?
Holidays such as this are great times to share joy and laughter with friends and family. Unfortunately, maintaining an atmosphere of merriment and cheer is not always possible for any young child to sustain for very long.
For many parents of children on the autism spectrum celebrations have to be approached with caution. Not every child is able to withstand the sensory stimulation that a holiday like this can create. Whether you are hosting such a festivity or going elsewhere, it’s important that you and your child be prepared.
The amount of hustle and bustle you stuff into this holiday for your unique family is within your control. It’s important to take the time to explain the significance of this holiday and the rituals that accompany it. It’s always best to alert your child in advance to what might/will occur, such as large family gatherings, fireworks and sudden loud noises. Having a discussion about these potential stressful events and what can be done about it in advance will give your child a sense of control and help reduce anxiety.
With that in mind, let’s talk about what more you can do to prepare your children for the upcoming holiday festivities.
- Write a social story. If your child is young, a social story will work really well to prepare your child for any event that might be stressful. Making your child the central character in a book that focuses on a specific topic, such as - Going to the Fireworks; What is a Family Reunion; Safety at a Summer BBQ; or Attending a Parade – really engages a child’s attention. Reading what to expect, and do, in particular situations before the event is a great teaching tool that will empower your child and reduce her anxiety. The Gray Center, https://carolgraysocialstories.com/, is a wonderful resource for learning how to write your own social story on any topic.
- Address noise levels in advance. Firework displays are LOUD - unless you watch them on TV and adjust the volume. Yes you can always use your hands to cup your child’s ears but this is not always practical. You always want to be prepared during these summer holiday festivities. Why not carry a pair of earplugs or noise cancelling headphones with you whenever you venture from home? You never know when a firecracker will be set off, especially in the evening. It is possible to take a hearing sensitive child to a fireworks display with the use of a quality headset. Some may not block out all the noise but will dull it enough to manage most auditory sensitivities. If you choose to use such devices just remember that you will have to work harder at trying to get your child’s attention when wearing them.
- Have a Plan B. When a child wants to attend a fireworks display but refuses to wear anything on her head due to tactile sensitivities make sure you have preplanned how to exit the event quickly and effectively. Remain alert to signs of sensory overload and take action before a complete meltdown occurs. If you were able to scout out a nice quiet space in advance for a possible time-out, act accordingly. This may be your parked car with your child's favorite articles for self-soothing. This will allow other family members to continue to enjoy the remainder of the firework display. The only other option is to escape the area completely – simply put the car in gear and head for home. You may want to keep this in mind when parking the car so you can have a quick and easy escape.
- Sunglasses. If your child is sensitive to bright lights you want to be prepared with a set of sunglasses. Lots of time spent out of doors during the day and a brilliant fireworks display in the evening may be too much visual input to adjust to. Having a ready supply of cheap yet fun sunglasses on hand will come in handy.
- Encourage deep breathing before and during the event. ALL children need to learn self-calming techniques to cope with life events – present or future. Children are never too young to be introduced to proactive steps they can take to regulate their reactions to things or events that might cause anxiety. Teaching a child how to breathe deeply helps supply oxygen to their body and brain to help them function more efficiently as well as relax their muscles.
- Have a preview. Find a movie or video about fireworks before you go. Watching a firework display on a screen allows you to control the volume. Start with the volume on low and allow your child to gradually increase it to just a bit above his tolerance level. This is called gradual desensitization and is a good way to help your child become more comfortable with things that are difficult.
You can also search for apps that allow you to not only watch a fireworks display on screen but also create your own show. Such a visual representation will provide your child with immediate examples of the firework choices he makes. Unfortunately, these programs are great at simulating actual sound but not at the intense level you will find at a real fireworks display, but they can serve as a good introduction. You can also try ‘going live’ in your own backyard starting with small popping noises and adding sparklers for the visual effect.
As parents, you know your child best and most of these sensitivities are easily identified but as your child develops, new sensitivities can arise. Paying attention to clues and noticing new reactions right from the start can go a long way towards preventing unnecessary meltdowns due to sensory overloads. Don’t let something as avoidable as this put a damper on any celebration.