Diane Cullinane has a son with sensory issues, and when he was 2 or 3 years old, the family decided to attend a local fireworks display one July Fourth. Cullinane knew her son was sensitive, so they parked three blocks from the celebration and watched from there. Even so, they had to leave after a few minutes. “It was just too much for him,” Cullinane says.
For many kids with sensory issues, Independence Day celebrations can be uncomfortable – or even downright terrifying. Cullinane, a developmental pediatrician and executive director of Professional Child Development Associates in Pasadena, offers tips for navigating this year’s festivities.
First, she advises giving serious consideration to whether fireworks are something your whole family will enjoy. If not, you might need to split up for the evening – especially if you have children looking forward to the show. “Sometimes one parent has to go and one stays home,” says Cullinane.
If your sensitive child wants to give the fireworks a try, prepare by reading a book about fireworks, which Cullinane says has advantages over watching videos. “You can go at a very slow pace, and the visual image is static, so you can talk and reflect,” she says. You could also draw pictures of fireworks together as a conversation starter.
As you discuss the upcoming outing, “the facts aren’t as important as the feelings,” Cullinane says. Talk about how seeing the fireworks will be loud, exciting, and maybe even a little scary.
Plan some coping strategies together. Talk about how your child can cover their ears or eyes if they feel afraid. Let them know that you will be there to help and support them.
Keep in mind that fireworks displays generally take place at the end of what can be a day full of sensory overload, with music, parades, picnics and crowds. They are also likely to keep your child up after normal bedtime hours, so do your best to make sure she or he has had enough rest, and has been getting enough to eat and drink throughout the day.
If you aren’t sure what your child’s reaction will be, or if you know sitting through the fireworks will be a challenge, choose a celebration that isn’t too far from home and pick a spot with easy access to the exit in case you need to leave early. “Don’t get into a situation where you’re in the middle of a big stadium and you can’t leave,” advises Cullinane.
During the show, pay close attention to your child’s reactions, and be ready to offer comfort – or a chance to escape. Take your child’s reaction seriously. “The feelings are real,” Cullinane says.
Don’t consider the outing a failure if you do have to leave early. Even if you aren’t very close to the action and see just a few minutes of the show, that represents progress. The key, according to Cullinane, is “finding that right level of challenge that your child can still be successful.”
Cullinane’s family left the fireworks show early that first year – and for three or four years after that – but eventually her son did make it through a whole show.