Autism and Fireworks

It’s time once again for me to remind my American readers that fireworks can be a real problem for autistic people of all ages.  Where I live, Independence Day fireworks start July 1 and go on through at least July 5, but across the country, there have been fireworks being set off all through the summer so far this year.  And with everyone having cabin fever after months of quarantine, this Fourth of July is likely to be exceptionally loud and raucous.  So let’s talk autism and fireworks.

Fireworks Aren’t Always Bad

Just to get this out of the way, some autistic people really enjoy fireworks, with or without accommodations.  Personally, I love watching fireworks for the visual stim – as long as I know they’re happening, so I’m expecting the noise.  I like the big displays you get from the artillery shells, but the huge noise scares me terribly.  Smaller fireworks, like volcanoes, roman candles, and other colorful and quieter pieces, can be a lot of fun to just watch as they burn.  But my level of enjoyment is entirely dependent on my mood that day, how many spoons I have for it, and where my energy level is at the time.

But They Are Usually Loud

My biggest issue with fireworks is the explosions.  The big ones are too loud and thumping, and the little strings of firecrackers go on so long that my ears start to ring.  This is a common problem for autistic kids and adults alike.  Earplugs or ear defenders are a necessity for some people, while others might be ok just staying inside and turning up the tv. 

And The People Are Loud, Too

Neighborhood fireworks parties almost always include people.  Especially here in the south, we take this holiday as an opportunity to share good food and good company.  This year, the parties may be smaller due to social distancing but they’re likely to be more boisterous for the lack of socializing over the last several months. 

Loud voices can be just as hard on autistic ears as loud fireworks.  Some of us can’t tell the difference between voices raised in merriment and voices raised in anger, and that gives us a whole other level of anxiety.  If you have an autistic child or adult at your holiday gathering, make sure there’s a quiet place away from all the noise where they can go to decompress if needed. 

Lights Can Be Painful

For some autistic people, all the bright sparkles that make fireworks so cool can be truly painful.  Many of us hate bright lights in general, so unless we’re getting a good visual stim from them, fireworks can actually hurt.  Those with especially light-sensitive eyes might need sunglasses to be able to enjoy the brilliant displays, or they may not be able to handle it at all.  That’s ok – don’t make them feel bad about it.

Keep in mind that while setting off lots of fireworks at once may look awe-inspiring, it can also create a strobe-like effect that can cause problems for autistic people.  I’ve never heard of someone having a seizure due to an overload of fireworks, but I can personally attest to getting a little overwhelmed by an ambitious display outside my window.  Heavy fireworks look and sound like a multi-colored lightning storm and can trigger the same fears in people who have trouble coping with thunderstorms due to sensory sensitivities or PTSD. 

So We Need Options

There are always options!  If you want to watch a fireworks display but can’t handle the noise, you could find videos online or check out a televised display.  Especially this year, those community firework shows are likely to be carried on local tv or streamed live.  The music at those shows is often enough to cover the sounds of the explosions.  As an extra bonus, fireworks videos tend to be a bit less bright than the real thing, so this is also a good option for those who can’t handle them in person.

Another option is “silent” or “low-noise” fireworks – yes, they exist and they’re even available for consumers.  You’ll still get the crackly, sparky sounds, but they don’t make big explosions.  You can also find displays of “silent” fireworks online like this one:

Most of that noise is just wind, believe it or not!

Of course, autistic people who can’t stand fireworks at all have options, too!  Stay inside, close the blinds or curtains, and turn up your favorite movie or video game with some good headphones.  Nobody says you have to partake in the fireworks if you don’t want to – and that goes for autistic kids as well – so feel free to set your own limits and decide what you’re comfortable with for this holiday. 

Purple and black text reading "Autism and Fireworks" over a picture of multicolored fireworks in a night sky

I wish all of you a great Fourth of July, whatever that means for you.  Myself, I plan to be writing (as always) and maybe binging a favorite show.  What do you prefer to do for this holiday?  Are you a fan of fireworks, or do they cause problems for you? Have you seen a “silent” firework show or used them yourself?  Do you like them better?  Bonus question: What’s your favorite Independence Day dessert?  I think mine is Green Fluff (also known, I believe, as Watergate Salad – a totally American mid-century invention).

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