Putting the ‘Works’ in Fireworks

I hope everyone had a happy and safe Fourth of July.

It’s always been one of my favorite holidays. Much like Thanksgiving, it is focused around three Fs — food, family and fireworks (whereas “football” serves as the third F for Thanksgiving).

We usually check off the first two Fs rather easily, spending the day together or with friends, firing up the grill and consuming a few adult beverages. It’s the third F, fireworks, that hasn’t always been a family activity.

Riley loves fireworks and can’t imagine missing them on the Fourth. Ryan is much more ambivalent. It’s not that he dislikes fireworks. They don’t present him with any sensory challenges, as he tolerates the noise and bright flashes without incident.

No, Ryan’s problem with fireworks is the waiting.

Our town hosts its annual fireworks display at the high school. It looks about the same as it does in just about every town — bouncy houses, sno-cones, a cover band, kids running everywhere trying to find their friends. And just after dusk, a 20-minute fireworks display. With thousands of people converging at one time at the school, parking and space on the fields becomes a premium. So we do what most people do — depart for the school early, long before the sun has even set.

The last time I took both kids was a few years ago. I badly misjudged what time the fireworks were to go off, and as a result, Ryan had to endure a long wait. Worse, it was a wait with an uncertain ending, the kind that ramps his anxiety into high gear. Riley was unfazed. I remember watching her run off with friends as I held Ryan tightly, trying to talk him back from the ledge. His body tensed in the way that is so familiar and we both fought tears. I thought about leaving Riley with our neighbors and bolting with Ryan.

But I knew if he could only make it to the start of the show, he would enjoy it. And he did.

I was vindicated in my decision to push him past his comfort zone. Right?

Wrong.

This was a case where I took an enjoyable family activity and turned it into a trial for Ryan to endure. I made him miserable, all so I could check the box and pretend we were a normal family, taking in and enjoying the fireworks. In fact, I remember being angry, as I held him tightly, at how easy it was for all the “normal” families to do what was so difficult for us. So I resolved to see it through.

That was the last time we went as a family for a few years. One of us either took Riley, or she went with friends. We offered Ryan to go each year, but he declined, and we were OK with that.

But this year, Ryan appeared a little more willing to go. We spent the entire day together as a family to that point and I saw no reason to change that.

We made one key change, however.

We left our house almost an hour later than we might have otherwise. That meant the wait, once we were settled on the field, for the show to start was all of about 40 minutes instead of almost two hours. And you know what? We still found parking. We found a spot on the field.

We enjoyed the show, without incident. All of us. We didn’t force Ryan to triumph over his anxiety to experience an activity he enjoys.

It’s so simple, I wonder why I didn’t do it years ago. The accommodation we made for autism and anxiety was to change our schedule and deal with a little traffic in order to allow Ryan to enjoy the fireworks. I did not have to hold Ryan’s tense body against mine. I didn’t have to help him fight the tears. I did not spend one second raging with jealousy at the “normal” families around us.

Instead, I spent a few minutes wondering why it took me so long to figure out how to properly accommodate my son.

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