Problems with Parades and your Special Needs Child? Keep it “UP”!

By Elayne Pearson, Special Needs Preparedness Specialist, Author, and National Speaker

July is great for recalling our amazing heritage in this choice land. I adore the patriotic music, programs, and parades. However, there were many years when even attending a local July 4th parade with Miss Heidi, our cute daughter with Down syndrome and autism, was very stressful. Personally, I loved the spirit of patriotism, the scalloped star-spangled bunting, and creating parade floats. Our four daughters in their crisp red, white, and blue outfits (and matching hair bows) undoubtedly felt the excitement in the air too, but our youngest, Heidi (who craved peace, quiet, and predictability) probably felt like she was entering a war zone, with random firecrackers, flashing police lights directing the excited mobs, smoke and BBQ odors from vendors, and bands playing with true vigor.  More than once, Heidi darted off in a “parade panic” and our family (also in a panic) thankfully always found her.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot and offer terrific safety tips for parents of loved ones affected by autism. Truly there are three phases to managing any big event; before, during and after. My cheerful theme song? “Keep it up!”

Phase 1 – BEFORE the Big Parade

TEAM UP- Many people with special needs experience high anxiety and become impulsive when overwhelmed, and resort to fight or flight mode. It’s scary having individuals like my Heidi unexpectedly dart off, knowing when they finally stop running or are found, they’re hardly even able to say their name, let alone give personal information. While it may feel a little embarrassing, wise parents realize they need support from friends, family, trusted neighborhood watch groups, and local authorities to keep everyone safe. Start these conversations.

SPEAK UP- When Heidi was a teenager, I finally took a photo of her to our Sheriff’s office, and shared our cell phone numbers and address. They appreciated my pro-active connection. I indicated she had no fear of typical dangers, and may ignore their questions.  Also, Heidi could be enticed with a candy bar or soda pop (which has pros and cons). I shared information about her attraction to water (ponds, pools, and fountains), animals, and high places (like balconies and playground slides).  This simple step was a real comfort to me, and a real help for them. Just wish I’d done it sooner.

PRINT UP- Some parents create a special T-shirt, identification bracelet, or dog-tag-type necklace with vital information for their vulnerable children. Several choices are available, so tailor it to your needs. For example, does your child “mouth” everything? We invested in a sturdy metal bracelet for Heidi, because she’s so strong and broke pretty necklace chains. There are “buttons” which can be personalized then pinned on, or “safety stickers” printed up.

GATHER UP- The morning of the parade is too busy to organize all the things you may need, so a few days in advance gather the sunscreen, hats, blanket, safety harness, bug spray, medications, camera, extra undies/diapers, wet wipes, snacks, bubbles and umbrella. Be sure and freeze some water.

POWER UP- If your loved one needs batteries for hearing aids or power-generated items, like a wheelchair, make sure it’s juiced up in advance or pack spare batteries that are ready to go.

BUY UP- Depending on where you sit on the parade route, the procession can take a while to get there, and sometimes negative actions set in. Beforehand, pick up a new little toy or something appropriate to amuse your child while waiting.

Phase 2 – DURING the Parade and Park Activities

DIVIDE UP- Consider possible parade locations carefully, if your special child needs bathrooms close or a shady quieter area, you may want to “stake your claim” early with camp chairs, rope, or a couple of old blankets. Some parents split up the family arrival times, and keep their cell phones handy.

OPEN UP- Umbrellas are great for rain and shade, but another easy tip is blocking visual clutter. Super-excited children running around Heidi creates anxiety, so simply opening our umbrella in front of her while we waited for the pretty floats actually helped her.

LINK UP- After the parade confirm your child’s safety harness, or “buddy-up” to avoid separation. Having a pre-arranged meeting place if someone gets lost is smart. (Not the flag pole at the post office, because there may be several flags around that day, creating a lot of confusion.)

BREAK UP- Breaking up the marathon into small portions of quiet time somewhere, or even going home, might be wise to help ensure everyone lasting through the family BBQ and fireworks.

CUT UP- At the family picnic or park after, please remember hot dogs are the number one food which creates a choking hazard. Don’t let that spoil your holiday, please cut them into small pieces.

FILL UP- Before any fireworks are lit, fill a large bucket with water for dousing hot sparklers, matches, etc. Watch for dry weeds or wood in your area. Go over the safety rules and stick to them. Fireworks have blown off fingers and caused blindness, so please remember, safety saves.

LIGHT UP-  Even seemingly simple “sparklers” can cause burned hands if not handled properly. Swapping sparklers for glow sticks provides safe, inexpensive fun.

BACK UP- Frequently, individuals with disabilities have hyper-sensitive senses. The noise of the exploding fireworks, the smell of the smoke creating watery eyes, while sitting in the “prickly” grass, quite often is just too much. Consider moving into the house or your vehicle and watching the light-show from there.

Phase 3 – AFTER the Big Holiday

REST UP- Everyone will be pretty wiped out, so don’t plan anything that next day or two if possible. You all need a quiet, simple day with fairly normal routines.

FOLLOW UP- After it’s all over, evaluate the day and jot down some adjustment for next year. Thankfully, these courageous children are growing every year with our loving guidance and support. Over time we’ll come to new mutual understanding and find additional joy in family traditions and holidays.

CHIN UP- Keep smilin’ and carry on! You’re a modern-day patriot doing your part for your country.


~ Elayne Pearson, Founder of Hidden Treasures of Health, is a Special Needs Preparedness Specialist, author, and national speaker. She loves learning natural health tips and teaching trauma-recovery tools. Her hobbies include performing in musical theater productions, scrap-booking, and playing with her grandchildren.

~ For more helpful tips, tools, and techniques visit Elayne at

~ For speaking invitations, please email:  [email protected]






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