How We Make Fourth of July Work for Our Family

The mom of two boys—one with autism, the other with sensory issues and anxiety—explains how her family celebrates this often-raucous holiday, amping up the fun in a way that works for them.

patriotic boy
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When I was growing up, the Fourth of July meant a long, lazy weekend full of parades, festivals in my small Southern town, crowds, shopping, fried food, fireworks, and family time at the pool or lake. As the oldest of 10 kids, I remember always being surrounded by lots of people, noise, and a general sense of chaos. To this day, I'm not sure how my parents managed to wrangle us all at places like crowded festivals, but they did it, and we usually had a blast.

But things are very different for my own small family. I have two sons, one who's autistic, non-speaking, and prone to sensory overload and anxiety. My husband and my other son both also struggle with crowds, heat, and sensory issues and anxiety. So—as you can probably imagine—traditional July 4th events are not for us. We don't do crowded festivals or parades, like I used to as a kid. Because of my kids' need for strict routines, we tend to be asleep by the fireworks time, and we avoid some of our favorite spots on Lake Michigan when they're overrun with people.

Yet, even though we do things differently, we still manage to have a great Fourth of July. Here's how we do it:

Play smart. Although we avoid the crowded beaches, we don't skip fun stuff altogether. Recently, we opted for a short, early-morning trip to a remote beach on Lake Michigan, where everyone had a great time. This let us still enjoy one of my favorite Independence Day traditions—playing together outside near big water—without the hassle or stress of large crowds.

Know your triggers. It's also so important for our family to know what can trigger each person's anxiety or meltdowns. Often, staying too long in a place will stress out my autistic son, so we opt for frequent short trips rather than longer ones. Also, since crowds are a major trigger, one of the things we do when everyone else is at festivals or parades is head to local parks. My kids get to enjoy having the park to themselves and everyone leaves happy. (And then I head to the festivals alone later if I really want to do some shopping or enjoy the energy of a crowd).

Get creative. When I was growing up, my parents tended to do Big-Super-Awesome-Really-Involved-Activity sort of things, like taking our family's sailboat out on the lake or going on a huge hike in the nearby mountains. For my little family, we keep it smaller in scale, but try to be creative. So, my husband and I try to do something novel daily. Over the Fourth, this often means trying out new things like making root beer floats or making different types of popsicles, or we buy the kids canvases and let them paint freely. By being creative and flexible with our traditions, we have a lot of fun and are often surprised by what the kids come up with.

Just be together. It's so easy to forget in the rush of daily life, but often what kids want and need most is just to be together as a family. Over the holiday (and as often as we can every day), we try to honor this. We try to focus on people over stuff, and so even if we stay at home over the Fourth, we're having fun playing, laughing, reading, hanging out, watching tv—whatever it is doesn't matter as much as the fact that we're doing it together and enjoying each other's company.

Whether you spend your day watching fireworks or at a parade, or just doing your own thing (like we do), I wish you all a happy, safe, fun holiday weekend, no matter how you celebrate it!

Jamie Pacton writes middle grade and young adult fiction, drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at, Facebook, and Twitter @jamiepacton.

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