I grew up in a dry area of the country, so thunderstorms were a celebration. I would rush outside, dance in the deluge and embrace the overwhelming display of natural power. Unknowingly I passed on this attitude to my children, even though we live in an area where storms are more common and less awe-inspiring. So when the noise from above cascades over our home, we all celebrate.
Oddly enough, this love of unexpected noise and flashes from the sky does not translate to a love of firework displays. Perhaps it’s due to being hit in the face with a bottle rocket as a child, or my natural “flight” response to gun-shot noises. Whatever the reason, I avoided firework displays for many years. Too much tension and managing my anxiety to be even vaguely fun. This response, however, is something I consciously did NOT want to pass on to my children, especially my eldest who is sensitive to noise. So I began a desensitizing process on myself.
Now I’m an adult, so these tips may not translate directly to your child with autism who may need more support. I’ll list out what those could be later. But beginning the process now, when your child is young, will make future 4th’s more manageable for the whole family.
- Focus on the visuals: I love the fleeting beauty of fireworks; the colors, the variety and the surprise. So initially I found ways to enjoy firework displays without any noise. Watch them on television or YouTube, mute the sound if necessary. Find a location, far from a display, where you can see the results, but not hear the noise.
- Do your research: Find a video that shows how fireworks are made, what happens and how they set up displays. Sometimes knowing what’s happening behind the scenes can help children who worry that “fire in the sky” is dangerous. It can also give you something to talk about to distract children who are disregulated due to the noise and/or crowds.
- Make the noise commonplace: I’m not saying fill your home with loud bangs everyday, but making those sounds more commonplace, will help. Bang pots and pans, set off Bang Snaps, and explore other ways to reproduce banging noises with your child. Find music that has fireworks embedded into the soundtrack, or get a CD of firework noises and play it during times when your child is regulated and distracted. Gradually increase the volume and frequency. This allows increased exposure to the noise in a safe, comfortable environment.
- Get closer: Find a venue where you can watch the display from your car. Keep the windows rolled up and dim the sound further, either use headphones, earplugs, or cover your child’s ears with your hands. Slowly, very slowly, let the volume increase. Remove the headphones, crack a window.
As I gradually got closer and closer to the noise of firework displays, seeking out opportunities throughout the year to expose myself, I became accustomed to the sounds and learned to focus on the sights. Now I am able to enjoy the traditional neighborhood display instead of rigidly enduring them; eyes screwed shut, ears plugged, hugging myself through it.
Other tips for kids
- Write a Social Story of what to expect at a fireworks display. Read it many times and fully answer any questions your child may have. Make it specific to the outing you have planned for your family.
- Write another Social Story addressing fireworks going off near your home. Often other kids or neighbors will set off fireworks before and after the 4th, so prepare your child ahead of time for these unexpected bangs that will be louder and scarier since they are so close to home.
- Be neighborly. Talk to your neighbors about your child’s issues. Let them know how hard it is for your child to handle fireworks and ask them to refrain from setting them off in your neighborhood. Many will understand.
- Compromise. Discuss with your neighbors a time when fireworks might be appropriate, i.e. from 9:00 to 11:00 pm on July 3rd, 4th and 5th. This will allow you to prepare your child for the disruption and/or vacate your house during these times.
- Familiarize yourself with local laws about fireworks. Luckily many towns and counties have laws against personal fireworks. If these are being set off in your neighborhood, one recourse for you is to report the activity. Another is to respectfully request that those engaging in this activity stop before you need to call the authorities.
- Adapt. Buy headphones or earplugs for the whole family, camp out in the basement, watch movies way past bedtime, sleep to music, or invite your child into your bedroom. For one night each year, do whatever is necessary to calm your child. Make these special exceptions to your family rules your own 4th of July celebration.