July fourth is right around the corner. For the child with autism, the magical day is filled with disastrous events that could leave them feeling un-festive without preparation for the big day. There is a simple strategy to remember when preparing for the patriotic day, “The Five ‘F’ Fourth Plan”. The five F’s include: Food, Fun, Family, Friends and Fireworks. Cover the five F’s of the Fourth and you can have a happy Independence Day, autism and all.
Many children with autism have delicate sensory needs surrounding foods. Some can only tolerate a handful of foods. Other children with autism simply cannot sit long enough to enjoy a meal, making cookouts and family picnics a nightmare. To top it off, there are children with autism on special diets as well.
To prepare, make sure your child will have foods available to eat. Bring some foods prepared at home that you know your child will tolerate or that are on your child’s special diet list. Be upfront with the host and if your child cannot tolerate sitting down to eat, plan to take a plate home with you and not have them eat at the event. It’s not being rude to forego meal time if your child cannot handle it.
What’s the deal with fun being on the list? Well with fun comes “fun overload” for the child with autism. It’s not to say that a child with special needs cannot enjoy a good time. You just need to plan on plenty of breaks to avoid the burn out that comes along with big, fun-filled days.
If your child uses visual schedules, bring a Velcro strip to create a schedule for the big day. Use it to add as many activities that your child can tolerate on it, with a break card at the bottom. For example, when going to a cookout at a family’s house, it may include: Play in sandbox. Play on swing set. Then take a break. In order to make the most of the break, find a quiet place inside where it is cool that you can retreat to when needed.
Having a fun-filled family event can be overwhelming to the special needs child. The heat and unfamiliar faces of distant relatives can set your child up for a bad day. Fortunately there are many steps you can take to make this family gathering more enjoyable.
Create a social story of family members to remind your child who will be around. Include pictures and explain how they are related to your child. If you have family that seems to not understand autism, come prepared with autism cards to pass out that explain autism spectrum disorder.
Got family that tends to gripe about your child’s behaviors? Make a list of all the things your child couldn’t do or had tantrums over last year. When things get out of hand, once everything is calm, start up a conversation about all the things your child has accomplished since then. You have every right to brag about your special needs child’s accomplishments and give hope that next year will be even better.
Social outings usually go hand in hand with friends. Children with Autism commonly display social skill delays which can create difficulties during the holidays. Perhaps your child lacks the communication skills to take turns with other children or maybe they display aggressive behaviors when surrounded by peers. Either way, there are things you can do to make dealing with friends easier for your special needs child.
Remind your child that there will be friends at the celebration. Talk to them about playing nice with others and perhaps discuss possible rewards for good behaviors with friends. You can offer immediate rewards or rewards for after the gathering. For immediate rewards, you can keep fruit snacks in your pocket and lurk in the background, pop over and say “I really like you playing with Sam, would you like a fruit snack?” and hand them a little snack. For rewards after a successful gathering, you can offer your child ice cream at home or extra time on the iPad before bed.
Remember to keep your child in sight when playing with others. You’ll want to be able to intervene if needed. If aggressive behaviors are a concern, you may want to be upfront with other parents so they understand when things get physical.
Create a redirection plan. When aggression does occur, what are you going to do? Know how to remove your child and where to go. Explain to other children and adults up front that if your child gets out of hand, you will have to take a break or possibly leave all together.
Fireworks, of course, come to mind when anticipating the events of the Fourth of July and are often the biggest challenge for many children with autism. The loud noises and the bright lights are huge sensory experiences that bring smiles to the faces of many, but what happens when this is just out of the question for your child with autism? Is your child in the position to be taught how to handle fireworks, and how does one even go about this?
First and foremost, it can take years and years for fireworks to become an event your child can attend successfully and even longer for your child with autism to enjoy fireworks. You should never feel pressured to attend this event, knowing your child will react negatively to fireworks. If you must skip the fireworks, there are many things you can do at home to celebrate.
Enjoy watching the fireworks on TV with your child and try turning the volume up a little bit to get a more life-like experience or safely enjoy sparklers in your back yard. These are all things that will eventually lead to attending the fireworks in the future without fear of your child becoming too overstimulated.
Social stories are also an option to make fireworks more enjoyable for your child on the spectrum. They can help prepare a child that will be attending the event by knowing what to expect and how to cope under the circumstances. Here is a social story that you can copy and add pictures to for your child:
We celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks.
Fireworks are a fun way to celebrate. I will go with my family.
Most fireworks are loud. That is OK.
Some of them boom. Some of them make a whistling sound.
If they get too loud, I can cover my ears or I can wear headphones.
I can also ask nicely to leave if it is too loud, like this:
“It is too loud, can we please leave?”
Fireworks sparkle. Some fireworks get very bright. That is OK.
If I do not like to look at the bright fireworks, I can close my eyes or look away.
I can also ask nicely to leave if it is too bright, like this:
“It is too bright, can we please leave?”
After the fireworks end, everyone will clap and cheer.
I can clap with them or I can cover my ears or wear headphones.
I will be happy that I got to see the pretty fireworks!
My Mom and Dad will be very proud of me!
As always, be safe and have a Happy Fourth of July!
– Michelle O’Neill, AHSS Lead CTM and the mother of a child with autism…plus 2!