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Mixing fireworks with autism

When I was a kid, the fireworks were my favorite event of the summer. Every year we all hopped happily into the car and drove to the waterside in my Virginia hometown to celebrate our country’s independence. There was nothing better than navigating through the crowds, balancing a funnel cake in one hand and a rainbow-colored snow cone in the other to find the best seat in the area. I always loved to see the fireworks shoot off and shimmer away across the water.

I couldn’t wait to take my own children out to enjoy the family celebrations of the Fourth of July, but that came with a huge challenge for us. I learned very quickly that autism and fireworks do not mix. My son usually does not do well with loud sounds, he hates snow cones (along with most other cold items) and funnel cakes are “just too sticky.”

Was I really doomed to stay home every Fourth of July? Were my other children going to miss out on a beloved family outing because my son would morph into a screaming, crying two year old at the mere mention of going to see the fireworks? Was my son ever going to allow us to enjoy July 4th with the rest of the country?

With many trials and tribulations, I’ve learned that while Autism and Fireworks don’t mix, neither do oil and water, but you still need them to bake a cake so I knew it just had to be possible to have success.

Here is my personal recipe to mixing Autism and Fireworks:

  1. Add headphones.
    This can cancel out the sound component to the actual fireworks and has the ability to help your child become tolerate of the display.
  2. Toss in a Preferred Activity.
    Bring along a favorite item or activity to distract your child from over-stimulation.
  3. Set a Timer.
    Some children just like being prepared and setting a timer can help by eliminating the unpredictability of fireworks and their start time.
  4. Take a test drive.
    For weeks prior to July 4th, anxious celebrators light up the sky at random. Toss the kids in the car, roll the windows down and ride away in search of the big booms for practice.
  5. Make a quiet firework.
    Sparklers can be purchased everywhere this time of year and are a great way to allow your child the opportunity to see the light without the loud noise of fireworks.
  6. Join another special needs family.
    Adding a friend that has similar special needs to your child can lessen the burden of feeling singled out. Not only does it help your child feel less alone, but it also makes parents feel more at ease in public, too!
  7. And the final ingredient…
    Have a Plan B. Whether its going home to do a different fun activity, such as staying up late in the backyard or watching the fireworks from the car, a plan B can make for a successful Fourth of July when needed.

Still don’t think your ready to bear the crowds and stimulations of the fireworks? Find a location nearby, like a playground that you can go to instead and still see the fireworks, or host a family and friends cookout to celebrate without leaving the comfort of your home.

Not every holiday has to go uncelebrated just because you are a special needs family. Because of all the struggles we endured over the years and the ability to never stop trying to mix fireworks with autism, I am proud to say my son is excited about the fireworks this year. With the right preparations, your family can too. Be creative and find out what works and what doesn’t. It’s definitely hard work, but just like baking a cake, it’s always worth it in the end.

Wishing you all a happy and safe Fourth of July,

Michelle O’Neill, AHSS Skills Coach and Mother of a Special Needs Child (Plus two!)

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