Independence Day and Our Love Ones with Autism, ADHD or PTSD
For most people celebrating Independence Day, the Fourth of July, is a time for the “4 F’s”, fun, food, family and friends. As a child growing up in Brooklyn my friends and family enjoyed many years of spectacular firework displays. I can recall wonderful times watching and participating in 4th of July picnics and firework displays.
My childhood memories of the Fourth of July may be different from some others. For some people the sight and sound of M80’s and firecrackers exploding and bottle rockets and mortars exploding in the sky is a sensory rich “horror show”. Many of the people who may have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other life challenges may be hypersensitive to sensory rich activities. They may experience heightened levels of stress and anxiety due to overstimulation to sight, sound, smell, touch and even past memories being triggered. Most of the people experiencing these types of life challenges often do best in consistent and predictable environments.
To help increase further understanding as to why some people may become overly anxious or stressed during times of celebrations and parties we can look to the work of the American psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow identified that human beings have five basic human needs and the unpredictability and sensory stimulation prevents the basic needs of feeling “safe” and “belonging”. This lack of feeling safe and belonging triggers the Fight or Flight response and therefore lead to the reactive “meltdowns” behaviors or elopement we may see from our loved ones.
Fortunately, there are measures we can take to help those children and others who can become overwhelmed by the festivities and celebration of our Countries Independence.
- We can prepare those who may be sensitive to fireworks and crowds by “modeling” what they should expect.
- During the times of greatest stimulation encourage our child to use a “stim” toy, such as a spinner, squeeze toy, or glow sticks.
- We can look for a quieter and less congested area to watch the show.
- We can plan ahead for the direction smoke may blow and look to avoid, nose plugs may work for some.
- We can encourage the child to use noise cancelling headphones, earplugs, sunglasses, or listen to music.
- We may choose to watch the fireworks show from indoors or inside an air-conditioned car with the child or others.
- We must provide our loved ones with unconditional love and not be judgmental or critical of their actions.
Ultimately, by getting to know how our loved ones react to sensory rich situations we can adapt their environment so that they can still participate and not be excluded from the fun.
Thank you to all the parents and children who shared their experiences in creating this overview.
Dr. Eric J. Nach