Fort Myers occupational therapists talk autism & fireworks

Autism & Fireworks: Tips From Fort Myers Occupational Therapists

For many people, fireworks are the highlight of summer holiday celebrations. But as Fort Myers occupational therapists, we recognize that delight isn’t what these loud, bright, earth-shaking explosions inspire for everyone. For neurodiverse individuals – and kids on the autism spectrum, in particular – fireworks can be scary, stressful, and uncomfortable.

Every child is different, so the approach parents and loved ones take to minimize these negative impacts will vary from person to person. Some parents may opt out of attending these events entirely. This is understandable. A 2018 study published in the peer-reviewed journal IEEE Pulse (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) took note of hypersensitivity to noise among many children with autism, underscoring that even everyday noises can sometimes cause pain, anxiety, and meltdowns. Absolutely if this is the case, it’s best to keep your child far from fireworks displays if at all possible.

But for those who think their child might truly get some enjoyment from it – as long as they’re prepared – consider the following tips from our Fort Myers occupational therapists.

Keeping Your Kid Comfortable During the Display

To keep your child calm and comfortable during fireworks, it’s actually a good idea to start planning several days or even weeks in advance.

Some approaches our Fort Myers occupational therapists have found to be effective:

  1. Preparation and Education:
    • Begin by educating your child about fireworks in a visual and tangible manner. Use social stories, visual schedules, or picture cards to explain what fireworks are, what they look like, the sounds they make, and how the booming clap might feel when it vibrates in their body.
  2. Sensory Integration Techniques:
    • Introduce sensory integration activities to help your child regulate their sensory system. This may include deep pressure activities, such as weighted blankets, compression vests, or gentle massages, which can provide a calming effect. You may already be doing these things at home, but increasing the frequency/intensity a bit in the days and weeks before can go a long way toward helping the child self-regulate during the actual event.
    • Engage the child in sensory play activities before the fireworks event to help them tolerate different sensory experiences. This might involve playing with sensory materials like textured toys, squishy balls, or calming scents.
  3. Noise & Brightness Management:
    • Introduce the sound of fireworks gradually using recordings or videos. Start with low-volume sounds and gradually increase the volume over time to desensitize your child to the noise.
    • Provide noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to reduce the intensity of the fireworks sounds. Make sure your child feels comfortable wearing them before the event.
    • Bring a pair of sunglasses in case the flashes of light get to be overwhelming.
  4. Visual Supports:
    • Use visual supports to provide structure and predictability during the event. This can include visual schedules, timers, or checklists to help your child understand and anticipate the sequence of events.
    • Create a visual coping strategy toolkit that includes pictures or symbols representing different coping strategies. Your child can choose and use these strategies when they feel overwhelmed.
  5. Distraction Techniques:
    • Engage your child in activities they enjoy and find calming during the fireworks display. This can include playing with fidget toys, engaging in sensory-motor activities, or participating in their favorite hobbies.
    • Encourage your child to focus on positive aspects of the event by pointing out the beautiful colors and shapes of the fireworks or by engaging them in conversation about other enjoyable topics.
    • Make sure to bring some of their favorite snacks – or even treats (it is a holiday, after all).
  6. Create a Safe Space:
    • Identify a quiet and comfortable space where the child can retreat to if they feel overwhelmed. This can be a designated area away from the fireworks, such as a car or a quiet room, where they can relax and regain control.

You might also consider watching the display from a bit farther back so that you can minimize the sensory overload. Watching from the car could be another option – and would allow you to make a relatively quick exit if your child gets overwhelmed.

Remember, every child with autism is unique, so it’s important to individualize your approach based on your child’s specific needs and preferences. Collaborate with your child’s Fort Myers occupational therapists to ensure you have a comprehensive and personalized plan for coping with fireworks.

FOCUS Therapy offers occupational therapy to children in Lee County, Florida.

Additional Resources:

Tips for an Autism-Friendly Fourth of July, Autism Speaks

More Blog Entries:

New Early Autism Testing May Help Kids Get ABA Therapy Sooner, April 1, 2023, FOCUS Fort Myers Occupational Therapists Blog

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