The 4th of July is one of my favorite childhood memories. I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin during the 1960s. Our house was a block away from Lambeau Field, home of the Packers. Door County was just north of Green Bay and cherries were in season. We always had a block party on the 4th of July and our relatives drifted in, too – so we had a crowd at our house, eating hot dogs and bratwurst. Best of all were the fireworks when the sun went down. The display was at Lambeau, so family and friends put up lawn chairs in our backyard and we all watched the fireworks together.
One of the really fun things about being a parent is recreating and reliving your best childhood memories with your children. But when my two sons with autism were growing up, it soon became clear that I was going to have to seriously rethink my Independence Day celebration.
It’s amazing to me how much helpful information there is out there now. So many articles, tips, tools, you name it for helping people with sensory disorders. Thirty years ago, when my kids were little, we were sort of on our own. The experience of the trial-and-error method can be a good thing, though. I will share with you some of the things we tried then – and I will also share some of the most helpful ideas I have run across lately.
The Most Helpful Things We Tried and Recommend
Keep your distance.
We tried to attend fireworks displays over several years. At first, we tried to attend in a big crowd. There were kids running everywhere, lots of screaming, light sticks, water pistols, sparklers, firecrackers. Even I felt a little stressed! If you have a child with a sensory processing disorder, do not be as silly as I was, thinking you can power through the whole event and that somehow your child with a sensory issue will learn to love it. If you want to try to view a firework display in the great outdoors, you don’t have to be up close. Fireworks are easier to handle (and are still fun for everyone) if you are a block or two away from the crowd. This worked better for us. My children were able to get through the evening. It did not make them love fireworks, but more on that later.
Choose your friends wisely.
We noticed that holidays were stressful enough. We learned to avoid large noisy crowds of unfamiliar people whose behavior was unpredictable. Small groups of friends who were familiar with our children were the best. (This also cuts down on judgmental stares and unsolicited advice and remarks from complete strangers that seem to come with the territory in large crowds. That’s not stressful for anybody, right?!?)
Create a safe space.
Plan a retreat for your child in advance. Make sure he can rest in a quiet room with a favorite book, object, snack, or beverage if the need arises. We found that this could head off a meltdown when our child was starting to get a little overstimulated, and with a few minutes to gather himself, he could then rejoin the party. (And remember, “party” is a relative term if you have a child with sensory sensitivities.)
If the holiday traditions you remember from your childhood are a nightmare for your son or daughter, let go of your past and create new traditions. Really, the joy in holidays is seeing our family peaceful and happy. As it happens, my kids could NEVER learn to tolerate the usual 4th of July stuff. We opted for small family get-togethers at our home. After hot dogs and brats, (see? we did not have to give up everything…) we all watch a fireworks display synced with music – no explosion noises, just music – on TV.
The Most Helpful Suggestions I WISH We Had Tried
Try ear protection (headsets) and sunglasses to reduce noise and glare.
If you are going to try to view a live outdoor firework display, this is sort of a no-brainer. Check out this article for more information. You will need to find out ahead of time if your child will tolerate either of these or both.
Prepare your child in advance for what to expect at a 4th of July celebration.
Watch an actual recorded fireworks display prior to the holiday. (I thought Sara Paronto’s article was full of good suggestions in addition to this one. You can read it here.) After thinking about this tip for a minute, I recommend you find a video on YouTube, so you can hear the actual fireworks noise. This will enable you to better gauge your child’s tolerance and to acclimate them to a real firework display. The videos I have seen on services like Amazon are set to music only.
Review the timeline of the day. Focus on what your child will think is fun – like a favorite activity. Give a rundown of the menu for the day. Food can be a powerful reward. (Think hot dogs and bratwurst….)
Use pictures to illustrate what will happen on the 4th. They may already be used to this technique from their school or day program experience. Pictures (drawings or photographs) can be really helpful in getting one’s head around what to expect. I know my kids hate surprises and find them very anxiety-provoking.
Organize a sensory-friendly event.
Because you’re not the only one looking for alternatives. Having a child with any kind of disability can be isolating for a family. Reach out to other families who have kids with sensory processing disorders. On the occasions I have reached out to other people, I have always been glad I did – and amazed at how much we had in common. If you decide to try this one, start small and keep the event short and simple – and round up some reliable help. A few extra helping hands can make all the difference.
Need suggestions about the kinds of activities to include? You can find some ideas here.
I hope these suggestions have been helpful to you. Please add any of your own suggestions in the comments. Tactics and activities that work for some families will not work for others, so it’s always great to have a bunch of different things you can try for many Independence Day celebrations to come. Hope your holiday is enjoyable!
(Joan is the mother of two grown sons with autism and is VP of Marketing at PMF.)