With parades, BBQs and professional grade firework displays, the 4th of July is, for many of us, an anticipated hot weather holiday. Though the traditions that surround this day of celebration are generally fun for the whole family, they can be overwhelming and nearly intolerable for children with autism or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
If your child has trouble dealing with sensory stimulation, here are some survival tips to help your whole family enjoy the day.
1. Prepare your child for the day
Whatever you’re planning for the day, make sure your child knows what to expect. Explain that there will be a lot of people and noise, but there will also be plenty of fun activities. If your child responds to visual cues, you can try showing him a video of fireworks (with the volume turned down at first) or a parade. Gradually increase the volume and take note of his reaction. Though it’s important that he knows what to expect, try not to go overboard. Sometimes too much anticipation can be just as overwhelming.
2. Bring favorite and familiar items
Familiar toys, games and snacks can provide comfort and distraction from over-stimulating sights, sounds and smells. These favorites can also come in handy if he gets antsy while waiting for an activity, like a parade or firework show, to start.
3. Establish a safe place
Whether it’s bringing along a small tent or a blanket to hide underneath or finding a spot that allows relief from noise and people, make sure to establish a “safe place” for him when he feels like he needs a break. If it’s easier to retreat to a location, agree upon a “safe word” or visual cue that he can use to let you know that he’s feeling overwhelmed.
4. Engage in heavy work activities
Heavy work is characterized by activities that involve the whole body or parts of the body to increase attention and calm the senses. Actions like pushing, pulling, lifting, chewing and squeezing are all meant to engage the body and, in a sense, organize the nervous system.
Have your child help you prepare for the day by packing a picnic basket or loading the car with lawn chairs. Have fidget toys and oral motor stimulators (like straws, teethers or licorice) available during the day so he can keep his hands and mouth busy and focus his attention.
5. Bring along sunglasses and noise blocking headphones
If watching a firework show or just hanging out in a neighborhood where residents will be setting off fireworks, noise blocking headphones may be helpful to quiet any loud or unwanted sound. Bright lights from fireworks also have the potential to stir up sensory discomfort, so having sunglasses on hand or a hat can help to ease visual overstimulation.
6. Stay mindful of the situation
Most importantly, keep an eye on how your child is handling the day. Even if you have prepared yourself and him for every possible scenario, he may still have a difficult time engaging in activities. Pay attention to his cues and if it’s too much for him, it may be best to remove him from the situation and go home.
Whether your child is able to engage in a full day of activities, or just visit a BBQ and spend a quiet evening at home playing board games, the 4th of July is a great day of celebration with family and friends. The most important thing is to find a holiday tradition that allows your family to enjoy the day together.
“Tips for an Autism-Friendly Fourth of July.” Autism Speaks: It’s Time to Listen. Autism Speaks, Inc., 2 July 2013. Web. 20 June 2014. http://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2013/07/02/tips-autism-friendly-fourth-july.
“Sensory-Friendly July 4th.” Dandelion. Family Publishing, Inc., 28 June 2012. Web. 20 June 2014. http://www.godandelion.com/blog/item/92-fourthofjuly.