While New Years Eve is an occasion of celebration for many, for children with autism, New Years Eve can often mean inescapable exposure to loud and painful sounds from a particularly offensive foe: fireworks. Due to the sensory sensitivities that many children on the spectrum experience around specific sounds, fireworks can cause a significant amount of anxiety for caregivers and kids alike, as they look for ways to cope with the noise and to survive and maybe even enjoy the night of festivities. The sensory modality of sound is foundational for a child’s emotional sense of safety, as it informs us with an understanding of the space that surrounds us and it helps us decide what to focus on, including what is safe and what is a threat, as well as where we may be able to move in response to this information. As you can imagine, for a child with sensory integrative differences, being inundated with the cacophonous and seemingly endless sound elicited by fireworks can cause inborn automatic responses such as fight, flight or freeze to kick in due to the perceived threat the child is experiencing. These defense mechanisms are not controlled by the cognitive part of our brain, but by the preprogrammed, subcortical parts of our brain, so attempting to talk a child out of this responsivity pattern or to use top-down approaches such as rewards or consequences may not be effective.
Strategies that may be most effective in combatting the anxiety induced by fireworks will include those that empathize with the child’s experience, anticipate the child’s specific difficulties and prepare or “prime” the child and the environment ahead of time (as much as possible). As we are not born with earlids (as we are with eyelids that help us dampen down and better tolerate visually overstimulating situations), auditorally sensitive kiddos have little means of controlling the input of auditory stimulation in these types of situations. Alas, even without earlids, there are some clever methods of survival that caregivers of children with autism and even older individuals with autism have come up with to help them navigate this night of noise and to prepare for a more successful experience.
- Consider using noise-canceling headphones or earplugs or earbuds with music/ podcasts: Noise-canceling headphones can be purchased in the hunting sections of sporting goods stores or online. Autistic adults have specifically identified Stihl ProMark Hearing Protectors as being low cost and effective. Music/podcasts provide focused sound and should be individualized to your child’s tastes/ interests.
- Engage in “body checks”:
-for older children who are verbal, this might be a discussion about how their bodies are feeling, including observational comments like “your body is looking nice and relaxed” or “your muscles are looking a little tight/your face a little tense”. Follow up to observational comments such as these might include “how about we take a little break” and accompany your child into a quieter, less stimulative space that you may have scouted out in advance.
-for younger children or for children who are nonverbal or who have limited verbal skills, this means monitoring the child for nonverbal markers of stress or overarousal. For example, the child may be becoming overly active/fidgety or “stimmy”, the child attempting to invert in space, the child yawning or beginning to look shut-down. Before these stress behaviors become full-blown, try offering positive redirection into activities that may help the child adapt into a calmer state (*see emotional ammo)
- Bring ammo:
- if you will be away for the evening, bring a survival kit which may include items such as a weighted blanket, fidgets, oral soothers such as chewlery or strawed cups, and, perhaps, the universal pacifier- a well-charged iPad.
- Watch the other sensory modalities: If you know that your child may be taking in a big dose of sensory stimulation via the auditory modality, watch the amount of other stimulation that he or she may be exposed to simultaneously. Response to externally mediated visual, motion, touch, and smell/olfactory stimuli may be elevated when the child is already taking in a lot of sound stimulation. While child-initiated stimulation from these other modalities may be helpful (i.e. the child may enjoy touching theraputty or feeling a heavy blanket), externally imposed stimulation from other modalities may not (your child might not tolerate light, affectionate touch from you). Response patterns will differ from child to child, but must definitely be considered and modified on an ongoing basis.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY: The child’s coregulator (YOU) should have a plan to keep yourSELF regulated! Take a daytime nature walk with your child, get in some extra snuggle or massage time (if your child enjoys this); these types of activities will help you prepare your nervous systems and your emotional readiness for a more stimulating evening than usual. Talk about the fireworks, the fun and the possibility of overload, in advance, and, if your child is able, make a mutual plan for success. Watch videos of fireworks in advance. Select the amount of time and setting in which you will observe the fireworks (up close and personal, or from a distance where you can make a graceful exit if necessary). In the moment, caregivers and kiddos can use positive self talk, breathing, singing or chants to help cope with feelings of stress. Counting the fireworks together, naming their colors or taking pictures of the fireworks could help your child stay in a regulated state around the experience for longer. You and your child could just watch for a few minutes and then tap out. The key is to build positive associations around FIREWORKS that can eventually help the child in being able to accommodate to or possibly even enjoy small doses of these types of shared family activities in the future. Every NEW YEARS EVE is an opportunity to succeed in this joint experience and to practice for the next auditory challenge that is sure to occur sometime around...the 4th of JULY!
Please feel free to share other ideas or strategies have you all found helpful with your own children. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!
Dr. Carrie Alvarado, PhD, OTR is a researcher and clinical Occupational Therapist who received her undergraduate education at Texas Woman’s University in Denton and completed her PhD in Infant and Early Childhood Development with an emphasis on Mental Health and Developmental Disorders through Fielding Graduate University. Dr. Alvarado has 16 years of experience as an Occupational Therapist and is certified as an ICDL DIR®Floortime™ Expert Provider and Training Leader. Dr. Alvarado has worked in inpatient, pediatric outpatient and home-based early intervention settings and currently serves on a diagnostic team at Autism Community Network. Additionally, Dr. Alvarado developed and manages the DIRFloortime Hands-On Family Empowerment course at Autism Community Network. Dr. Alvarado's primary research interests are in Sensoriaffective Integration and attachment, clinical use of reflective video feedback, and in optimizing parent-mediated interventions.