Remember, Remember the 5th of November: ASD – A guide for coping

Families living with autism are approaching that challenging time of year again. No sooner do we get through the horrors of Halloween, which can be very disturbing for those that struggle to discern reality from make-believe, we then face November the 5th and fireworks

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For some people with autism, the unexpected loud noise and flashes of fireworks can cause anxiety and stress. For those with sensory issues, fireworks can be very distressing indeed. People with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) see and experience the world in very different ways; for many, autism can bring heightened sensory sensitivities; this means the noise and visual display of fireworks can be overwhelming for someone with autism. For most of us, an unexpected firework might make us jump, but we can immediately process that it poses no threat. However, someone with autism may be slower or unable to make that association, which causes a 'fight' or 'flight' reaction that may put them in danger.

Amanda and  her son Lynden
Amanda, ECL marketing consultant, and her son Lynden who has autism.

My 19-year-old son Lynden, has autism and severe learning disabilities and was terrified of fireworks as a child. The whole week before and after November the 5th was hellish; he would sit in the middle of the stairs (where he was furthest away from any windows or doors), cover his ears with his hands, 'hum' to block out the noise, and rock himself in distress. Thankfully as Lynden has got older, he has learned to deal with fireworks better, even though he still doesn’t like them. I think that's because he now understands that the fireworks won't hurt him when he is safely cocooned at home. I can't promise it will be the same for everyone, but for those with younger children, it may help to know that as our kids mature, so do their coping mechanisms. My trusted mantra that gets me through all the difficult times is ‘this too shall pass’!

For loved ones distressed by fireworks, there are steps you can take to help them cope:

  1. Planning is always vital to supporting a person with autism to deal with any situation that they find tricky. If you have other family members desperate to celebrate with fireworks, plan to leave your loved one safely at home with someone they trust while you go out and enjoy them. It may also help prepare your loved one for this time of year by creating a visual aid or a social story (a short story to explain what will happen and why, and most importantly, when it will end, using pictures and words).
  2. Use ear defenders or noise-isolating headphones to block out the unwelcome sound of fireworks. My son takes no chances and puts his ear defenders over-the-top of noise-isolating headphones that sit inside his ears. I wouldn't be comfortable with that if we were out and about as he needs to hear me so that I can keep him safe, but it's fine in the safety of our own home. Turn up the volume of familiar sounds, such as the television or music inside the house, to help block out the noise.
  3. Close off potential views of fireworks by drawing the curtains as darkness falls. Although, I have heard of instances where watching a television display has helped individuals tolerate fireworks. In my son's case, the sight of fireworks was just as distressing as the sound, so we had to be careful not to show them on the television too.
  4. Provide distraction and comfort. Create a cosy den inside the house to provide a 'safe space.' Putting some favourite items, sensory toys/accessories, and snacks inside the den can help. For my son, it's his laptop, music, twinkly lights, and either chocolate or crisps that comfort him (now is not the time to worry too much about healthy eating!). He also wears a 'bite bangle,' so when he gets stressed, he clamps his teeth down on it, which helps him moderate his anxiety.
  5. Finally, it's worth appealing to the better nature of your close neighbours. If you explain the situation to them, they may be willing to keep their firework displays within a limited time frame (i.e. not too late at night), use 'no bang' fireworks, or at the very least, give you advance notice when they plan to have their displays. These days many of us are on neighbourhood WhatsApp groups which make it easier to communicate with our neighbours and gently educate them on the challenges that our loved ones with autism face.

We hope this blog helps you to get through the firework season and wish you all the best with it. We have also written a blog with hints and tips on managing Christmas, which will soon be upon us; you can read it here. Most importantly, remember you are not alone; whether you are already an ECL customer or think that you and your loved one could benefit from some additional support, we are here and ready to listen. Contact us.

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