Autistic Sensory Issues on the 4th of July
I love the 4th of July. It makes a great midpoint of summer – everything before leads up to it and then everything after it is winding down, looking toward the next season and going back to school. Plus, it’s one of only two holidays when we get to use fireworks! Yes, I’m autistic and I love fireworks. Working around autistic sensory issues on the 4th of July isn’t really hard, and can help autistics of all ages enjoy the holiday.
Around here, we love picnics and barbecues for the Fourth. They usually involve a big potluck-type dinner, someone grilling outside, lots of people in and out of the house, games in the yard, maybe some music, and even alcohol. It’s generally a messy splat of humanity throughout the evening and into the night, when people start shooting off the fireworks. Needless to say, this is challenging for people with sensory issues, but it can still be fun.
First and foremost, designate a chill-out space. It doesn’t have to be much, just a quiet, out of the way place where anyone, autistic or NT, can go to get a break from all the activity and noise. If you’re a guest, rather than the host, scope out a place out of the flow of traffic and keep it in mind. Try to keep the noise down throughout the party by keeping the music at a reasonable level and reminding people not to yell in their conversations.
Make sure there’s acceptable food for everyone. Where there are autistic people, there’s likely to be food quirks, plus you never know these days who might be gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, or vegetarian/vegan. This is one reason a potluck is great: you can just ask everyone to bring something they’ll like. However, if you plan to cook everything yourself, ask everybody what they need, whether that means veggie burgers, diet sodas, or potato salad without eggs. If you’re hosting as an autistic adult, you’ll already know your preferences and those of your family. If you’re an NT hosting autistic guests, they might bring their own food, but ask anyway, especially if autistic kids will be attending. They will love you for your consideration.
I know this is the bit you’ve all been waiting for – how to get an autistic person through a night of fireworks – but please realize that a lot of us really like fireworks! Seriously, they can be great visual stims, we love to watch them. For most of us, our sensory issues revolve around the explosions. Earplugs might be sufficient to counter that, or ear defenders might do better. If there’s a good view, some autistic folks might prefer to watch from indoors, so they get the visual without much auditory stimuli. You might also consider not shooting fireworks at home at all, and instead go to a public fireworks show with music that might drown out some of the noise. If all else fails, you might decide to just watch fireworks on tv.
None of this is foolproof, of course. The bottom line is that, if it gets to be too much, it will be necessary to remove yourself or any other autistic person from the situation. Go indoors, go back to the car, just get away from the overwhelm. There’s no shame in stepping away when you need a break.
Special considerations for autistic kids
Autistic adults can mostly be responsible for themselves and their own sensory issues throughout the Independence Day festivities, but autistic kids are a different story. The key words here are supervision and understanding.
Children who haven’t yet grasped the concept of fireworks – whatever their age – need to be kept well away from where the fireworks are being lit. An adult should stay with them at all times in case of sensory overload or bolting. They might get scared by the lights or the noise, or they might rush toward the pretty lights. Keep an eye on them and try to head off any problems before they turn into a full-blown meltdown.
Autistic kids who are fascinated by the stimmy nature of fireworks but understand the dangers might enjoy sparklers, spinners, or volcanoes. When I was about 5 years old, I discovered some cool multi-stage sparklers called Morning Glories, which I still love. Make your own judgment about whether each child can safely hold a sparkler on their own, and supervise them closely.
Of course, autistic kids who know how to be safe around fireworks can help light them, but they still need supervision. It’s amazing how quickly 10 to 14-year-olds can think of something stupid to do with fire when the adult’s back is turned, and impulse control is often even worse for those of us on the spectrum.
Above all, do not let anyone try to force or shame a kid into fireworks if the kid doesn’t like them. Sometimes adults think they’re helping a child get over their fears when they’re really just being pushy and overbearing. If your autistic child wants to stay by the house and watch, that’s fine. If they want to stay inside and watch out the window, that’s fine, too.
To the autistic adults who don’t want to deal with people or parties, I say this: I can relate! Most summers, I cook something special for myself and plant my butt on my couch for the duration of the holiday, even if it’s a 4-day weekend. Blessed introversion!
For you, I recommend finding a good marathon on tv or planning a play-through of a favorite video game. Even if you’re not celebrating, you’ll probably still have to deal with your neighbors shooting fireworks, playing music, or generally having a loud good time, so anything that will counteract the noise outside is a good choice. I also suggest getting your favorite food, ice cream, or some kind of edible treat just to be nice to yourself, because it is a holiday, after all.
While July 4th can certainly be a challenge, there are ways to work around autistic sensory issues and make it a great time for everyone. Like everything else when you live with autism, it just takes some planning.
How do you celebrate the 4th of July? Do you love or hate fireworks? What are your favorite or most-hated kinds of fireworks? (I can’t stand Black Cats, myself.)