The Fourth of July is a time of fun, celebration, and FIREWORKS. But, for those with sensory processing disorder (SPD) or for parents of a child with SPD, it can be very distressing.
A child with SPD may have difficulties processing sensory input. They may become overwhelmed with loud noises, crowds, surprises, unexpected touch, or even just the change in their normal routine.
This may cause them to retreat, run away, become upset and have a behavioral outburst. This struggle with sensory overload makes it difficult for them to enjoy and participate in the festivities.
How to navigate big events with SPD children
Prep! First and foremost, prepare your child for the upcoming event. Discuss what you will be doing, what they may see, hear or feel. Talk about how this may make them feel. Give ideas of how you will help them feel comfortable and safe. Ask them what they are excited about and what they are nervous about to inform your preparation.
Helpful tools to soothe
Noise-canceling headphones are a great way to help an auditorily sensitive child. These headphones reduce the volume of the noise they hear, allowing them to enjoy the spectacular visual element of fireworks, without auditory overload. Make sure you try the headphones out prior to the day. You’ll want to make sure they fit right and your child is comfortable using them. Sometimes trying something new can be upsetting for a child with SPD. It’s helpful to familiarize them with the tool you’re using before the stressful event occurs.
Compression clothing or weighted blankets/vests provide deep proprioceptive input which is typically calming for a child. If your child responds positively to this sort of input, make sure you have their vest or blanket available for the big day. Use it during the more overstimulating events or when you anticipate they may become overstimulated.
Deep pressure from a hug, squish or joint compressions can be another way to get similar calming input. Have your kid sit on your lap when fireworks are being lit so you can provide them with a bear hug if they are getting overwhelmed. Remember that deep pressure can be used in preparation of a difficult situation, so use deep pressure leading up to fireworks. Think of it as a way to soothe the nervous system prior to a stressful event.
Take a Break
Quiet space or a ‘desensory’ place, can be helpful to provide your child a break away from all of the action. Perhaps they are excited for the day but you know they will get overwhelmed with everything going on. Set up a safe place away from all of the activities where your child or both of you can retreat for a brief respite.
Show them this space ahead of time. Explain that if they need to, they can come here to calm down and regroup. Sometimes having just a few moments to get away from an overwhelming situation can be enough to allow a child to calm down and be re-engaged. Additionally, you can provide calming input via deep pressure or a weighted blanket during this time.
*NOTE: It should be noted that a desensory place should not be used as a timeout or discipline place. This should be a place the child feels very comfortable going. We want them to learn that this is a space that helps them feel better, and eventually seek it out for themselves without the guidance of a parent.
Strive for Balance
Meet them where they’re at. Remember it’s also okay not to participate in everything going on. Maybe your family plans a big day of it all: gathering for a BBQ, then lighting fireworks when it becomes dark, and going all out.
You may know that all of this will be too much for your sensory avoider. If your child is overwhelmed, perhaps you both can watch the fireworks from inside. This will give them some cushion from the extreme stimulation.
Maybe you know they are really excited about the fireworks, so choose to limit the interaction at the gathering beforehand to help them stay more regulated. You can also plan to take a few sensory breaks during the day to help them stay on track.
Prepare, Monitor, Succeed!
Children with SPD can sometimes be unpredictable. Knowing what typically calms or upsets your child and monitoring their behavior during the day will help you to intervene at the right times. Of course, something unexpected can always occur, but having the proper tools can make the difference between a meltdown and just a blip on the radar.
Having a successful experience will be very empowering for both you and your child.
Using the right tools, paying attention to your child’s needs and modifying what type of input you are providing, or simply taking a break from the action, can allow a successful day.
You’ve got this!