Many people have memories of Independence Days spent watching fiery sparks speed through the sky as the crowd “oohs” and “ahhs”. Sitting under the stars watching the colorful show while enjoying delicious food with friends and family is a preferred way to spend one of the nation’s largest holidays. However, for families with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), these noises, smells, and sights can spell sensory overload. Sometimes parents feel like they must avoid the festivities all together for fear that their child won’t be able to handle being around so many sensory triggers.
The good news is, whether it’s a small family barbeque or a massive firework bonanza, there are ways to prepare your autistic children for what they may encounter. Which in turn, may help your entire family celebrate Independence Day together with less worry.
1. Celebrate July 4th your way
No one knows your child better than you. You know what they like, what they don’t like, and what their limits are. Keep those things in mind when planning your fun Fourth of July festivities.
Feel free to consult your child. Asking them what they want to do will give them a sense of independence while giving you insight on your options. Explain why you enjoy celebrating this exciting holiday and express how much fun they will have during the festivities.
2. Prepare and practice for the fun
If your child has ASD, they often respond better to predictability. Talking to them before the festivities will help prepare them ahead of time for what they may experience.
Talk about what you will be doing step-by-step. For instance, getting in the car, eating food at a barbeque, waiting in traffic, any details you can think of. Be sure to mention all the fun things they will do as well!
If you think it will help, expose them to stimuli they may experience beforehand. Watch videos of fireworks with them and slightly increase the volume over time. Or, try a practice barbeque to get them used to the sights and sounds of a crowd of people.
3. Enlist their help with the celebration
If possible, ask your child to help you prepare for the fun! If you are heading out for an event, have them help load the car. If you are hosting a barbeque or picnic, ask them to set up chairs or put dishes on the table.
Giving them a chore to help you with serves two purposes at once; giving your autistic child a feeling that they are in control of something while also marking an item or two off your to-do list!
4. Create a comfort zone
When a child with autism feels comfortable, they are more likely to have a better experience during sensory-heavy events. Bring along cozy seating or cushions to make sure they have a comfy spot to sit.
Sometimes, a small pop-up tent is helpful in giving your child a sense of security and escape from the large crowds. If being close to the action is too overwhelming for them, find a quiet spot to watch from afar.
5. Offer familiarity
Fourth of July events are full of unfamiliar sights and sounds. Bring something familiar along with you to make your child feel more at ease. A favorite toy or book is a great companion for a child battling sensory overload. Create a playlist of favorite songs or bring along an iPad to direct your child’s attention to something they enjoy.
Barbeques and parties are often full of food and drinks your child has not experienced before. Bring along some of their favorite snacks or beverages to comfort them when they are feeling overwhelmed.
6. Reduce stimuli
Fireworks can be bright for even those not on the autism spectrum. The light from sparklers or fireworks can overwhelm children with sensory issues. To combat this, your child may want to wear sunglasses to help them feel more comfortable.
Invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones or pick up some earplugs from the drug store before heading out for the night. This will help with loud noises and help your child feel safer and less overloaded.
7. Have a getaway plan
Explain to your child that it’s okay if they get scared or anxious. They should feel like you are there for them if they feel overwhelmed. Decide on a safe word or hand signal to use in the event they need to leave or get away to a quiet space.
Try to park close to the festivities in case your child experiences sensory overload and needs a quick way out. Even if you don’t leave completely, scope out a quiet spot or area ahead of the festivities in the event it’s needed.
8. Make your night in fun
If you decide to celebrate from home, there are plenty of ways to make it fun. Watch the fireworks on television and let your child adjust the sound to their comfort. Some children may prefer watching without the volume or the ability to control how loud the sound will be.
Enlist your child’s help in planning your family evening. From their choice of snack to games to play, the primary focus is family togetherness. Encourage flexibility and understanding from your family. Besides, who doesn’t enjoy time on the couch with a bowl of popcorn?
Fourth of July can be fun for the entire family
However you choose to celebrate Independence Day, make sure you are practicing fire safety and keeping a close eye on each other. Remember that each child is different, as is each family and spending time together during the holidays is what is important. No matter how you decide to celebrate!