Autism and the Fourth of July
The 4th of July can be complicated for people both on and off the spectrum. As a teenager in the summer, I worked in a seasonal store my aunt managed that sold fireworks. I remember the excitement of customers purchasing explosives sure to fuel spectacular shows. The 4th of July was always fun and just a little bit bit dangerous (My cousin burned his hand badly enough one year to land him in the hospital and justify all my mom’s warnings about firework safety). No matter where we celebrated, cookouts and quality time with friends and family were always a part of the holiday. Now that I’ve grown older and had kids, the holiday brings a mixed bag of feelings. Loud fireworks after bedtime outside of whatever celebration we are participating in are not welcome. The 4th of July also presents unique challenges for individuals on the spectrum. Despite these challenges, there are ways to accommodate for a safer and more enjoyable holiday. This begins with learning about auditory sensitivities and how they impact people.
How Does Auditory Processing Disorder Affect People?
Auditory hypersensitivity can be a symptom of auditory processing disorder. Auditory processing disorder affects the brain’s ability to correctly perceive noises. This may affect the pace at which one understands the spoken word or the ability to tune out background noise. Sometimes everyday noises can be extremely painful. For example, one of my family members had difficulty spending time at the beach. The sound of even the gentlest waves coming into shore would cause her pain. She would sit with her hands over her ears, struggling to enjoy the experience just like everyone else.
Another adult on the spectrum once told me that he, along with his autistic sons, wear noise reducing headphones when they go out to eat, and then they text each other at the table to communicate. He said it looks as if they are lost in their devices, completely alone in their own worlds; however, they are actually socializing in a very sensory-friendly way that allows them to comfortably enjoy dinner in a restaurant. Listening to people on the spectrum discuss how auditory processing affects them can help parents and the general public understand and learn to accommodate. Amythest Schaber’s video is a good start. Additional resources are listed at the end of this post.
Modify Your 4th of July to Meet the Needs of Individuals on the Spectrum
There are several different accommodations parents can use to help their child enjoy the 4th of July festivities. For example, noise reduction headphones can be used at public firework displays (or in your home in the evenings when you can hear others shooting off fireworks nearby). If public displays are too overwhelming, parents can try shooting off smaller fireworks at home or watching them on TV. Understanding both your child’s desires or interest level as well as his limits will help guide you with choosing these activities.
Prepare Your Autistic Child for the 4th of July
Preparing your child is perhaps the most important accommodation for any event. This preparation will vary depending on your child’s needs and interests. Below are some examples of preparations to consider:
- If you are attending a public gathering outside your home, consider what safe spaces may be available in case your child needs a break. Also, ensure you are able to leave quickly and safely if necessary.
- If your neighborhood has a social media page, you can post messages about your child’s sensitivity to fireworks and ask for people to limit usage or at the very least adhere to state laws.
- Practice using noise reduction headphones with your child well in advance before the holiday.
- Be ready with other fans or white noise machines for nighttime. These will not drown out loud fireworks, but they can offer a consistent, soothing sound immediately following a loud burst and may reduce your child’s overall anxiety.
- Slowly expose your child to sudden loud noise with smaller fireworks at home. Slow, safe exposure is a technique useful to introducing autistic people to all sorts of aversions. A mother on the spectrum explained that she used this technique to help her son grow accustomed to the noise and activity of the grocery store, which completely overwhelmed him. Social stories can also be used to introduce 4th of July activities.
Preparing your family for an enjoyable 4th of July is important, but so is communicating the needs of individuals on the spectrum to others so there can be more safe public spaces and events. For more information about how auditory sensitivities affect people on the spectrum, check out the resources below.