Many Americans look forward to Independence Day. Work is cancelled, hamburgers and hot dogs are ready for grilling, there’s plenty of pie, and fireworks light up the night.
But for autistic people, fireworks can ruin the fun.
A night of celebration for neurotypical people may cause physical pain to autistic people.
Do fireworks really hurt autistic people?
I have Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), just like many other autistic people. People with SPD have over- and/or under-sensitive senses. My hearing is unusually sensitive.
Loud noises cause me pain. My guess is that the level of pain I experience is comparable to the thing actually happening to me. When my mom slams two dishes together in the dishwasher, it hurts as if she had whacked them against my ears. When someone drops a large object to the floor, it’s like they dropped it on my head. Of course I’m going to wince or cry.
I don’t “overreact” to sound. I actually underreact, because thanks to years of being thought of as “too sensitive” and “inconvenient,” I’ve learned to hide my pain and pretend it’s okay.
Painful noises may have played a role in my development of complex PTSD.
So yes, fireworks hurt me personally. Some autistic people will have less sensitive ears, and may find fireworks painless. Other autistics may have worse sensory sensitivities than I do, and may suffer even more.
Regardless of SPD, autistics are particularly sensitive to low-pitched noises. In everyday life, things like vacuum cleaners, blenders, sports cars and motorcycles, and people blasting loud music can be painful and frightening.
(There was a study on this, but I’m afraid I can’t find it.)
So yes, fireworks can cause physical pain in autistic people. It’s true of me, and it’s true of others too.
Autistics aren’t the only ones.
Autistic people aren’t the only ones who are at risk of pain or stress due to loud fireworks. Unfortunately, both people and animals can have their fun ruined by loud noise.
- Combat veterans and gun violence survivors with PTSD may experience flashbacks.
- Babies get scared and cry (which means the parents aren’t in for a stress-free night either).
- Pets are more likely to run away and get lost. They may be too disoriented to return home.
- Wild animals also get scared, sometimes running or flying into dangerous situations. They may hit buildings, get tangled in fences, run onto roads, fly out too far to sea, or accidentally abandon their babies. Wildlife rescue may not be able to save them.
- Premature babies get extremely stressed by loud noise. In one case, loud fireworks may have contributed to the death of two premature twins.
I’m guessing you’re a good person. You want to have fun without hurting anyone else. You might be asking yourself “How can I have fun without harming the people and animals in my neighborhood?”
It’s a good question. There are a few things you can do:
- Check the neighborhood before you celebrate. Are there any signs saying things like “Veteran with PTSD lives here” or “autistic child area?” Are you near a hospital with premature babies inside?
- Notify your sound-sensitive community members about your firework plans. It’ll help if they can prepare beforehand.
- Buy quieter fireworks. Go for smaller and subtler fireworks.
- Let people sleep. Don’t shoot fireworks off too late at night.
- Try setting off fireworks away from residential areas. For example, there might be an open field nearby that isn’t too close to any other houses.
And if your family member is sensitive to noise:
- Give them the option to stay behind if you’re going out to watch a firework show.
- Let them see fireworks on the computer, so that they aren’t too bright or loud.
- For an at-home fireworks show, choose only quiet fireworks (like sparklers). Or, do all the quiet ones first, and send your sensitive family member inside for the louder ones.
- Provide sound-blocking strategies, like earplugs and headphones. White/brown noise can make fireworks sound quieter in comparison.
- Encourage stress-relief strategies, like deep pressure vests and swinging on a backyard swing.
- Intervene if they look stressed. Offer to escort them somewhere quieter, or ask if they need a break.
- Show empathy and validate their feelings. Let them know you care.
If you’re the sensitive one, check out wikiHow’s article on coping with firework noise.
Fireworks and courtesy
There is no perfect guarantee with fireworks, but if you do your best, you can enjoy your night while keeping it relatively pleasant for the people around you.
When in doubt, just be kind.