Diversability, Rethinking Environments

Memorial Day Celebrations – By Tim Paauw

Today is a special day where we remember many men and women who have served and sacrificed for the good of our country.  One of my favorite events for the day is a Memorial Day Parade that our school participates in each year. As a school principal, it is an honor be able to thank those who have served while seeing joy on so many faces as we go down the streets of our town. I have had this distinct privilege for seven years now. You can easily picture this beautiful event… candy being thrown everywhere, kids lining the streets waving and shouting, Red/White/Blue flags and outfits in abundance, the breeze whistling through the trees at perfect times to cool you off as you walk, all of our uniformed forces are present to add to the reminder of patriotic sacrifice including the police officers, firefighters, and every veteran military branch, and lastly the amazing airplanes flying over with eye-catching loops and cloud trails that form wonderful shapes in front of blue skies.  I LOVE THIS ENVIRONMENT AND IT GIVES ME CHILLS TO THINK OF OUR FREEDOM AS I TAKE EVERY STEP IN THE PARADE!!!  I want my children to grow up understanding this same blessing and celebrating it.

Now, re-imagine this environment from a diverse perspective. Imagine if your brain couldn’t accurately filter and process each detail separately and instead it felt as though all of it was happening AT you rather than WITH you. Suddenly, the waving hands look as though they are swinging, airplane smoke appears to be a danger on the horizon, the breeze startles you, the shouting feels like a signal to worry because of everything else happening, you look around and notice that uniforms you normally see rushing to emergencies are hanging around EVERYWHERE!

All of your senses are telling your brain it is time to panic. Nothing feels right. You feel stressed. You cover your ears to try to reduce noise and allow yourself a quieter moment to think, but the breeze is relentless and the sirens keep going off!

One early indicator for us that our son Nolan was on the autism spectrum comes from this parade environment. Many of you have heard of and aware of “sensory issues” that can come from busy settings for people that are on the autism spectrum. About six years ago, our school was placed directly in front of the fire-trucks for the parade. Nolan was almost one year old and we had him and his twin sister in a stroller ready to walk the parade. From the very first firetruck siren sounding and horn honking we knew we were in for the longest mile of our life. Tears flowed for Nolan. He covered his ears. We ended up carrying him as he screamed and couldn’t find peace in the midst of what he perceived to be chaos  (Click here for a sensory simulation).

If I paused my writing and asked for advice, I have a feeling many would say “Quit the parade! Don’t take Nolan next year, he hates it.” If this is where your heart is right now in reading this, I can guarantee you that you are not alone and it is one of the first things we thought about doing. In fact we did. For the next two years we made excuses on why we shouldn’t participate. We took a break.

When our twins were almost four years old, we decided not to give up and try it again. Just like many parents, we want our children to learn the lesson that when they face challenges and trials it is important to press on through them. Nolan has not missed a parade since then. The original experience sparked something for us as parents, it triggered the healthy recognition that our son has diversabilities. He is autistic and sees this beautiful world a bit differently than others, than us sometimes. He is able to take in more sights and sounds than most.

We took a closer look at the parade environment  more carefully (and other similar experiences). In order for us to support our son and help him experience these moments we realized it is best for him (and us) to preview and take time sifting through options on how to reduce some of the sensory challenges. For the parade when he was four years old we included our parents to assist in walking the parade with us, and we had backup plans in place in case things were too tense for Nolan.

Improvement has happened each year. For the past two years we have entered the school truck as part of the school’s group. This has allowed Nolan to be “daddy’s co-pilot” and given us a radio to play calming music inside while he looks and waves when he wants to do so. Windows can go up if things get too noisy, although I’m happy to report that at this year’s parade he was smiling the whole way and didn’t need this to happen. About half way through the parade he did request my phone so that he could watch his ever familiar TV Show “Super Why” to help narrow his surroundings for a while.

From the truck as I waved, I did hear a few voices from the crowd talking about Nolan as we drove by, “Check out that boy, he is on a cell phone missing the parade!”  If only they knew… this was a victory for Nolan! He was IN the parade. I am so proud of my boy and thankful for this co-pilot in life. I think we get it wrong when we always assume someone with an autism spectrum disorder needs to behaviorally change, at times the rest of us just need to pause and figure out how to change the environment a bit more.


Some of you reading this may be on the autism spectrum or have a loved one who is. It is my hope to encourage you that those events you love and environments that can be overload can be overcome. Hang in there and get creative!!

Having said that, we’ll see if I ever have the courage to take Nolan to the 4th of July fireworks… again, re-imagine that setting from a sensory viewpoint. Cannons, fire, dark, booms, lots of people. Some day, maybe.



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