July 4th, Fireworks, and the Sensory Sensitive Child

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The culmination of our Independence Day is typically nighttime fireworks.

Most adults and children revel in the traditional display of bright lights and loud booms. Accompanying music can make the experience even more electrifying! Although the majority of the spectators at fireworks shows love the intensity, some children may have difficulty tolerating fireworks as a result of more sensitive nervous systems. The result can be “meltdowns,” tantrums, and other outputs in response to “sensory overload” (overstimulation), both from the day’s festivities and the fireworks themselves.

Holidays such as Independence Day, as well as others centered around family, friends and the outdoors, are great ways for children to socialize, play, and experience exciting traditions. The following analysis and recommendations will hopefully provide you with some tools to help facilitate your child’s successful participation in this holiday and other exciting events (birthday parties, concerts, etc.).

Understanding Total Load

The “total load” is how much sensory input a child has experienced throughout the day – both “good” and “bad.” Depending on how much calming input someone has had versus stimulating input, a child may be more neurologically “organized” or “disorganized.” Based on this balance, a child may be on the verge of meltdown or “available” to process/tolerate sensory input appropriately.

To better understand your child’s sensory processing difficulties, it can help to think about your own nervous system and total load.

YOU: Are you more likely to become agitated at the end of a long, stressful day at work OR after a satisfying meal with close friends? This example has an obvious answer, but has direct carryover when thinking about your child’s response to sensory input (potentially calming or agitating).

YOUR CHILD: Is your child more likely to have a meltdown after a long, hot, over-stimulating day surrounded by loud strangers and eaten alive by mosquitoes, OR after a routine day with a balance of indoor and outdoor activities? I’d venture to say the latter scenario would be more likely to result in a meltdown.

Granted, everyone needs something slightly different to help modulate their arousal states and avoid meltdown; however, routine days typically go smoother for children with sensory processing disorders.

Our ability to filter, process, interpret, and respond to sensory input throughout the day directly affects our threshold and tolerance levels for that input. For children with sensory processing disorders, their thresholds are much lower than their typical peers or family members – their total loads max out faster.

Where Billy’s younger brother can handle the different/wild day that is the 4th of July, Billy is beginning to enter high arousal (“meltdown zone”) halfway through the day without realizing it. By the time the fireworks show begins, it might be too late to “save the day” from a serious tantrum, making the event stressful not just for him, but also for family and friends.

Total Load Challenges on the 4th of July:

Different/altered daily routine; new or different people or places; loud talking music or other noises; increased excitement with family and peers; high arousal pool games; excessive heat and potential lack of shade; tactile processing challenges (sand, grass, or water); chlorine and sun exposure to eyes; sunburned skin; no naps; dehydration; hunger; too much sugary drinks or food; less access to parents for help.

Total Load Solutions on the 4th of July:

Increased proprioceptive input from play in water; wearing a tight swim shirt; wear goggles; wear sunglasses; wear hat; wear sunscreen; have shade available with an umbrella, tent, or the indoors with A/C; portable fans; ice in a cooler with ice-cold waters, fruit, and protein; nap; sensory break (alone or quiet time); mixture of organized games/activities with free-play; attend to your child’s arousal state and respond appropriately (too hot, too wild, too tired, hungry, thirsty, etc.).

Adequate planning, preparing, and providing support for your child to navigate their total load of the day is most important. Using a large, visible calendar to mark off the days until the 4th is a good way to prepare your child for the coming change. Showing your child pictures of less-known relatives, family friends, and the location of the events can also help prepare. Use of a visual timer can be helpful with transitions during events on the actual day.

Potential Sensory Difficulties with Firework Shows

Too bright; too loud; startling (unexpected); too crowded; unknown people or dogs around; no bathrooms; no drinks; too hot; rainy; no seats; long walks or drives; traffic; mosquitos and other bugs; boredom waiting for the show to start; inability to actually see the fireworks due to crowds or weather; lack of food or drinks; total load from what may already to that point have been overstimulating day.

Potential Solutions and Plans for Success with Firework Shows

Have a known “escape plan” if signs of over-stimulation or increased anxiety occurs to the point of a meltdown; local, smaller, closer-to-home, less-crowded shows; watch a show on TV with the volume at tolerable levels; watch an outdoor show from inside of a house or office building; wear ear plugs or other noise cancellation equipment; wear sunglasses; verbally prepare child for what noises and sights are coming (pictures or videos can help as well… ‘The Sandlot’ has a good fireworks scene set to music); bring distraction/comfort toys/fidgets; bring chairs; bug spray; sit in calm family member’s lap; go with friends or family who do not startle easily; set a time limit for how long you are going to stay; bring a blanket if chilly; rain gear if rainy; bring flashlights; a jar or net to catch lightning bugs; avoid electronics as they can add to your child’s visual processing total load and decrease their capacity to tolerate additional intense visual input such as fireworks.

Talk to and Listen to Your Child

It can be very difficult for a child to understand why they are scared, anxious, or in an overall high arousal state. Look for signs that your child is heading in that direction and attempt to talk with them about it before they reach the meltdown point. Maybe a simple glass of cold water in the shade and some quiet time is all they need to keep up with the hectic day… or a fresh coat of sunscreen.

Don’t expect them to come to you for the help initially; but, if you regularly talk out why you are helping them and how you knew they needed help (sweaty, looked lethargic, etc.), then eventually they can learn to identify their arousal states and solve their own problems.

If your child doesn’t seem ready for fireworks, DO NOT force them to go to a big show!

Be a detective and try to figure out exactly why they do not want to go (see potential problems above for ideas). Remember that a big fireworks event isn’t necessary – you can make your own show in a controlled, safe, comfortable environment with noise-making and non-noise-making fireworks and sparklers. If necessary, grade the show down for them to what their nervous systems are currently able to tolerate (i.e. small show at home, watching from indoors, watching on TV, etc.).

Consult your occupational therapist with specific recommendations for your child. If your child is not receiving occupational therapy, consider seeking services with an emphasis on Sensory Integration and arousal modulation.

Charlie Johnson, Occupational Therapist

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