Mary has three children, including Sarah, who has autism. Each year, her other two children ask to attend the July 4th festivities at the neighborhood high school. In the past, she always said they could not attend because she was concerned that Sarah would become upset by the noise and activity. She feels bad that she has always said no in the past and decides at the last minute that they should go this year. She convinces herself that Sarah is older and can better tolerate noise and crowds. At 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon on the 4th, she tells all three children that they will be leaving in an hour to go to the high school stadium where the fireworks are held. She wants to get there early so that they can get a good seat and enjoy some of the pre-fireworks activities.
Sarah immediately starts screaming because her routine has been disrupted. She eventually calms down, everyone gets in the car, they drive to the high school, and then they find a seat in the bleachers. There is a lot of noise, it is very crowded, and there are strong smells coming from the grill at the snack bar. Sarah begins saying that she wants to go home. Mary repeatedly tells her to “wait for the fireworks.” The fireworks begin, and the noise is so upsetting to Sarah that she bolts out of her seat and runs toward the parking lot. Mary takes off after her, catches up to her, and they sit in the car and wait for the fireworks to end and the other two children to come along so that they can go home. She then drives home in silence because she is upset that she “ruined” everyone’s day.
As you can see, Mary had good intentions, but she made a hasty decision to attend the festivities due to the guilt she felt about depriving her children of attending the fireworks in previous years. Due to her lack of preparation, the outing was not a success. The following ideas will help you to make events such as July 4th easier and more manageable for your child:
- Manage your own expectations and emotional reactions. Family events and holidays can be stressful for all families, even those without a special needs child. It is difficult to accommodate everyone’s needs. Realize that you will not be able to please everyone. Even though you cannot have control of the entire situation, by planning in advance you can help to minimize problems. Depending on how your child handles changes in routine, give an appropriate amount of warning and mark the upcoming event on the calendar. Consider reading a book about the type of event you will be attending, watching a similar event on TV or writing a story about it for your child. Discuss with your child what she can expect, and emphasize the aspects of the event that she will most enjoy. You may want to rehearse, through a role-playing activity, what your child will be doing at the event.
- Don’t schedule multiple events for the same day. For instance, if your community has a parade, a cookout, and a fireworks display, choose one of these to attend.
- If you are going to attend an event with a great deal of sensory stimulation, consider using noise cancelling headphones for noise, sunglasses for light, or a sachet to block odors that may be offensive to your child. Have a communication device or signal (verbal or nonverbal) that your child can use to let you know that she needs a break from the stimulation.
- Although there may be many activities at the event, your child may not be interested in them. You may want to bring a bag with an iPad, books, puzzles, a fidget and/or other activities for your child to do while other family members participate in the scheduled event.
- Realize that your goal of attending an event as a family may not be realistic. It may be better if you take some of your children to an event and your other child stays home with your partner or goes to a friend’s house. For example, your child with autism may prefer to watch a national broadcast of fireworks on TV without the sound on while your other children attend the live fireworks in your community.
By planning for the event, giving your child advance notice, taking into account your child’s sensory issues, and having a signal to leave, you may be able to prevent meltdowns and potentially dangerous outcomes, such as your child running from a situation. And, don’t forget, when you child has a success at the event, be sure to give her plenty of praise, high fives, and thumbs up!
Jamie E. Carter and Ahna I. O’Shaughnessy are the authors of PREP for Social Success: A Guide for Parents of Children with Autism, which is an easy to understand four step program to help your child with social skills and emotion management. It is available exclusively through Amazon Kindle at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00WQANRI4. Dr. Carter is a clinical psychologist with many years of experience in performing assessments for children and adults and providing psychotherapy and consultations. Ms. O’Shaughnessy is a psychology associate providing behavioral services to various agencies and schools that serve adults and children with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders in the Greater D.C. and Baltimore areas. She also teaches classes to staff and parents in the areas of behavior theory and social skills techniques. You can follow them on Twitter @Prep4SocSuccess and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PREPforSocialSuccess. They can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was featured in Issue 49 – Understanding the People We Love