In Louisiana, parades and festivals are a way of life. We look forward to the excitement of Mardi Gras all year long as we reconnect with neighbors, family and friends on the parade route. For children with developmental and behavioral disorders, all of the sensory information that comes along with a Mardi Gras parade can be overwhelming. The very nature of these parades — the crowds, throws, loud noises, sirens, and lights — can present a challenge to parents and caregivers of children with sensory sensitivities who wish to experience one of the best parts of Mardi Gras.
It’s important to recognize the significance that this season has to our community. To miss out on Mardi Gras is to miss out on what makes our part of the country so unique. The Carnival season inspires a tremendous sense of community between participants and neighbors and not being able to experience the fun can lead to an increase in feelings of isolation and stress for children with disabilities. But with some advanced preparation and a little day-of know-how, everyone can still enjoy the magic of Mardi Gras.
As a physician who specializes in developmental disabilities, I’m passionate about giving parents and caregivers the tools to understand their child’s needs especially in unique situations like Louisiana Mardi Gras. Here are my suggestions and recommendations for how parents and caregivers can prepare children with sensory sensitivities and disabilities to celebrate the Mardi Gras holiday safely.
The biggest piece of advice I can give to parents and caregivers of children with developmental disorders is to plan ahead. Prepare for the parade days if not weeks ahead of time. Review what will happen during the parade from beginning to end, and even act it out in the controlled environment of your home. This way, you can build your child’s awareness of the event while also learning what might become a potential trigger once you are in the actual parade environment.
YouTube is a great resource for parade preparation. Search for parades and play them for your child so they can get used to the experience of watching a parade in person. This will help them start to learn and recognize what to expect ahead of time. Picture books about parades are another great resource — I’m a fan of The Little Float That Could by Yvonne Perret!
Play can be a great way to prepare your child for the sensory experience of the parade route. Act out a parade in the house with all of the things that go along with it: cheering, marching, music and throws. You can practice tossing stuffed animals safely in the house, so children get used to the concept of throws coming off of the floats. Talk through the whole experience in advance including who will be going to the parade with you as a group. The goal is to reduce ambiguity and limit the unexpected across the whole experience.
I also recommend introducing children to the route and themes of the parades ahead of time, so they can get excited about what they are about to experience. The Carnival parade bulletins with pictures of the floats which run in the paper are a great resource for this. Print off the route of the parade and trace the path of where the floats will go. Children can hold the map and imagine the route from beginning to end so they know exactly what is going to happen.
On the Route
Most of these tips will be familiar to parents and caregivers who have attended Mardi Gras in the past. Again, preparation is key and will reduce stress and anxiety ahead of the experience for everyone!
Pick your spot on the route ahead of time. In New Orleans, Uptown is generally considered to be the most family-friendly area of the traditional parade route and it has the added advantage of catching the riders when they are at their most organized and coherent. If you have a friend or colleague with a nearby bathroom, even better!
I highly encourage arriving early and choosing to attend the parades which are earlier in the day. Stake out your spot and introduce yourself to the other parents and people around you to build respect and awareness. If you’re comfortable, let these parade neighbors know that you have a child in your group who will be extra sensitive to the sound and visual stimuli so they can act as additional eyes and ears and protect your area.
Make sure your child eats ahead of the parade and bring lots of snacks and drinks to the route. Respect their sleep schedule, and you can even bring a wagon along where they can sleep if needed.
Some of the items I suggest to pack in their bags ahead of time include:
- Noise cancelling headphones
- Fidgets or a stress ball
- Favorite stuffed animals for comfort
- A weighted jacket, weighted blankets or a weighted lap pillow. Depending on the specific needs of your child, sitting in a folding chair with these items on may reduce a lot of environmental stress.
- Sunglasses in case the floats are bright
- Tissues and hand wipes
- Relaxation activities that are engaging but also soothing: books, bubbles, coloring books, Etch A Sketch, and other portable games
- Flashlights: some kids may enjoy playing with these in between parades/ floats
- An eye mask in case you need to further reduce the visual stimuli
As always, be careful with throws from the floats and be ready at all times to catch them on behalf of your child. I also encourage parents to attach some sort of bracelet or identification on their child if the child elopes or runs. If that is the case, you should also set up a perimeter around your area ahead of time and share this information with the other parade-goers around you.
Keep in mind that you may not get to stay for the entire parade, and that’s okay! If you made it out the door, you should consider the day a win. And even if you can’t make it to the parade route, Mardi Gras is still the perfect time of the year to celebrate Louisiana culture and heritage wherever you are.
Throw your own Mardi Gras celebration with family and friends at the house and enjoy the best part of the Carnival season: spending quality time together having fun.
Helping Children Be Their Best Selves. Learn more about the Michael R. Boh Center for Child Development.