Written by: Dr. Steve Merahn MD FAAP | June 29, 2017
The time around July 4th is busy, noisy, and different in terms of people (crowds), places (parades, picnics, grassy lawns) and things (fireworks). While this may be a recipe for fun for some children, from the perspective of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, these ingredients often be come together into a giant, sticky, overwhelming mess. Some families chose to opt-out of festivities and have a quiet time at home; but even in that case, we can’t control the activities in our neighborhood, so it’s best to be prepared no matter what your plans may be.
Here are five tips for helping your child, and your family, manage the sensory experience of our nation’s mid-summer holiday:
Help your child to understand and envision exactly what is going to be different that day. Explore and explain all the things that will take place; if you are going to participate in new activities, map out the whole day and rehearse the trip if you can. Even if the event is at your house, talk about all the possible scenarios that could occur with the people coming, the food, and the activities planned for the day. If your child has some usual techniques to help them cope, brainstorm how they might be used in these potentially new situations.
2. Sights and Sounds
Depending on your child’s comfort level, consider sunglasses, hats, and even a hoodie to help your child manage visual stimulation. The sounds of the 4th can be intense: crowds of people, games and other activities, music, and, of course, fireworks. Feel free to let your child use earplugs, familiar music, or even noise-cancelling headphones to block some of the auditory stimuli. Look up YouTube videos of fireworks beforehand, to share and experience the sights and sounds in advance.
If you are visiting a barbecue or picnic, pack some of your child’s familiar foods. Ask them in advance what they want to bring along so they have a sense of control. If appropriate, rehearse with them to gently say “no” when people will ask them if they want to try new or different foods.
As much as possible, let your child pick their clothes for the day. If you are going to be around people who are unfamiliar with your child’s diagnosis, do some rehearsal with your child about preparing for, and responding to being accidently bumped into, hugged, or wrestled with. Create some options for them to decompress, even if that means coming into your orbit for temporary “protection.” A small pop-up tent can sometimes serve as an escape pod if you are in an open space with lots of people. If you are visiting, sometimes a brief trip to the car can take tensions down a bit.
For some children, it is helpful to have “job” for the day. Being a helper or “in charge” of some element of the activity will make them feel more involved and more in control of their experience. For others, try and give them as much choice as possible in terms of seating, moving around, or isolating themselves (with as much supervision as possible). Work with other family members or friends to form a buddy system to keep them feeling safe. However, you also should be prepared to escape; let your child know that they can always let you know they are overwhelmed and need to get away from the people or the place. Finally, your child has a meltdown, attend to them and don’t worry about the looks or concerns of others.
From all of us at Centria Autism, have a safe and fun 4th of July!
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