Fourth of July Safety Tips for Kids with Autism and Sensory Disorders
June 27, 2020
How to Have Autism-Friendly Fun on Independence Day Without Risking Comfort
Parents of young children know Fourth of July celebrations come with pros and cons that are often heightened when those kids have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Gorgeous firework displays equal loud, booming sounds, extra-stimulatory visuals and smoky scents. Backyard barbecues usually bring unfamiliar foods. Holidays in general mean changes in routines and settings. There are even some real safety concerns that surround Independence Day for parents of kids who are known to wander or have sensory processing disorders (SPD). What can you do to keep your child safe on the Fourth of July if you are worried about autism-related challenges? Hopebridge Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Rachel Zvareck and Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) Dani Newcombe provided some ideas to maximize safety and fun while minimizing risks on America’s birthday.
6 Safety Tips for the 4th of July Geared Toward Children on the Spectrum
Inform your local emergency response departments. While not July 4th-specific, this is one key step parents can take to proactively protect their children in the case of an emergency. Most police and fire departments offer opportunities for families to submit disability-related information about their children so it can be entered into the system and used by law enforcement, when needed. For example, let them know if your child is non-verbal, uses a communication device, is known to display aggression when approached by strangers, responds best to explicit instruction, etc. This not only helps first responders find your child during wandering cases, but also shares more information with the officers in order to keep him or her safe once found. While working with the Goshen Police Department to revitalize its disabilities training, Dani learned it has a simple form that can be filled out by parents, though the process varies between communities. The best way to supply your information is to call your local non-emergency dispatch center line and let them know you want to provide information about your child so they can guide you through the next steps.
Communicate the day’s festivities in advance. As with most of our holiday and event advice, an important step in experiencing these activities is to let your child know what will happen on the Fourth of July. Tell them what to expect, including schedules, activities, people in attendance and food to eat, so they can better mentally prepare. You can use books, social stories and pictures covering fireworks or cookouts as visual supports. Rachel also suggests showing children videos of fireworks; starting with a low volume and slowly increase it over time. You can also let your BCBA know of your plans to include preparations within ABA therapy programming. Within these conversations, talk about safety, from the fireworks and sparklers to the grill and swimming pools. Above all, find ways your child can understand that they will be completely safe with you.
Give your child the power to make their own choices. As parents, it’s easy to become consumed with worry and overlook the joy and fun that can occur if positioned in the appropriate way. Rachel and Dani recommend involving your child if they want to take part in the activities, as many really enjoy it! Ask, “do you want to help decorate or stay inside and watch a movie?” Have them choose where to sit, who they want to sit next to and what to eat, which allows them more control over what’s happening in their environment. Give them small tasks, such as decorating, preparing food for a cookout, or taking photos of guests. It not only provides a distraction, but empowers the child and makes them feel proud they were able to contribute to the day’s events.
Create a safe space. Some Fourth of July concerns for kids on the spectrum are that they may run or elope in an attempt to escape the noise. To decrease this risk, remind them they can ask for a break, either verbally, with a picture card or their device. Give your child his or her own special spot during the fireworks, barbecue or whatever events you have going on during the day. This could be a chair or blanket that is only for them to use. Bring some of your kiddos’ favorite toys and snacks. If they tolerate them, comfort items such as headphones, sunglasses and sunscreen can help cut down on some of the sensory sensitivities. Creating a safe space also includes watching fireworks and festivities from a distance. Not only does it lessen the stimuli, but it creates a buffer for kids who may think they are really cool and want to run up to them, which can be physically hazardous.
Design an exit strategy. It’s natural for many children with autism to become emotional when there is a lot of noise or crowds. Be aware of the signs and signals to know when it’s too much and they need to move to a quieter environment or leave entirely. It’s helpful to have your family prepared with an exit strategy so the whole group knows what to do in order to pack up and leave quickly and smoothly.
Plan a fun distraction. Due to COVID-19, this year brings a whole new layer of challenges for families to navigate. Since many communities are not hosting a main event, many people are opting to create their own “private” fireworks shows and parties…and the explosive activities are starting earlier than usual. If your child may experience distress from having the sounds so close to home, put on a favorite movie or music to distract them from the noise. In cases where it is especially overwhelming, consider leaving for the evening to do something more enjoyable if you know your neighbors will set off fireworks.
The last thing both Rachel and Dani want to remind parents is to continue to check in with your child leading up to and throughout the big day. Keep an eye on them and their needs while also remembering to make it fun for them.
Does your family have other safety solutions that have worked for you? Share with us and other parents on the Hopebridge Facebook page.
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