St. John’s the latest city to offer sensory-friendly space at Christmas parade

The holiday season brings flashing lights and blasting Christmas carols to public spaces and shopping malls across Canada, making it a challenge for people with sensory disorders to get into the holiday spirit.

In response, a number of Canadian towns are adapting holiday parades and shopping spaces so people with autism spectrum disorder and other sensitivities can participate.

In St. John’s, N.L., a section of Water Street will be designated as a “sensory-friendly zone” at this Sunday’s Christmas parade. Participants have been asked to lower music levels and turn off flashing lights and sirens, while bands have been asked not to play their instruments.

“We heard other parades were doing this, so it was kind of on our radar as ‘Geez, maybe this is a thing,”‘ said Gaylynne Gulliver with the Downtown St. John’s Business Commission. “We could take this one little area where people can be quiet as they go by, and see how it goes.”

With tall buildings that reverberate sound and an average attendance numbering in the thousands, Gulliver said logistics were daunting at first, but the organization collaborated with the Autism Society of Newfoundland and Labrador to plan ahead.

Volunteers will be on-site checking in with spectators and taking feedback for next year.

Sarah White with the provincial Autism Society said sensory overload and unexpected changes in routine can make the holiday season especially challenging for people with autism spectrum disorder.

She said this year will be an exciting first for families who have avoided the Christmas parade in the past because of a child’s sensitivity to sudden noises, bright lights or intense scents.

“For some of our participants, they want to go to the parade, they may have tried to go to the parade many times and have had to take a step back because they’ve gotten overwhelmed,” White said.

“If they want to make this a part of their Christmas tradition, they now have the ability to do so.”

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