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A Santa Claus for Kids with Autism

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Griffin (11), Henry (7) and Leo (5) with sensory friendly Santa Claus

The holidays can be difficult for kids with autism. Christmas is the season of sensory overload! And a trip to visit Santa Claus at the mall may seem like a holiday must for some parents. But for parents raising kids with autism it’s a holiday tradition many are most likely to skip.

We avoided it for years before taking Norrin to see Santa Claus for the first time last December. It was at an amusement park and since it was still early in the day, there wasn’t much of a line. So we waited. My husband and I talked Norrin through the process. Because Norrin sort of understood the concept of Christmas and Santa Claus, we thought it would be easy.

When it was our turn, Norrin wasn’t interested in sitting on Santa’s lap or telling Santa his name. Norrin was so overwhelmed by everything around that he couldn’t tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas, even though Norrin had a long list of requests.

After about thirty seconds, a picture was snapped and we were sent on our merry way because there was a long line of eager kids waiting to see Santa. The picture wasn’t the best and we were allowed a do-over. The second photo came out slightly better.

Thinking of that day, I’m hesitant to return. But then I heard about ‘Sensory-Friendly’ Santa (aka ‘Quiet’ Santa or ‘Sensitive’ Santa) for kids with autism and/or special needs. Parents are allowed to schedule an appointment to visit with Santa. The Santas and their elves are prepared to meet children with special needs. Families are allowed to take their time. And it’s understood that the perfect photo may require more than one try.

Earlier this Month, Macy’s Department Store and Autism Speaks hosted a Sensory Friendly Santa event. I didn’t have the opportunity to attend, but I know some moms from the Bronx Parents Autism Support Circle who went with their families. They had so many wonderful things to say about seeing Santa. For some, like Tati and her 4-year-old daughter Emma, “It was a first time” experienceAnd some expressed their gratitude, “It was nice to have the VIP treatment and not have to wait hours on line,” said Shirley, mother to 9-year-old Nico

However, Shirley  shared that there were some challenges about the day. She wrote, “I have to learn to accept that [my son] is not always going to be receptive to ‘typical’ experiences, no matter how “adaptive” or ‘sensory-friendly’ it may be. I roll the dice every time, taking chances to see which day, which experience is the winner.”

For others, a visit to Santa means engagement. Lizette, mom to 8-year-old Donovan, wrote in a recent blog post, “He kept asking ‘Are we gonna see Santa? Will he have presents?’ Hearing him say this, even if he was repeating it over and over, was music to my ears! He was talking in context and it was full sentences!” 

New Jersey mom blogger “Mama Fry” of Autism with a Side of Fries has also taken her son to see a Sensory Friendly Santa. “There was no pressure, no rush, I was able to take as many pictures as I wanted,” she said.

A visit or photo with Santa means just as much to parents as it does to kids.

Last year, Alysia Krasnow Butler, co-director of SenseAbility Gym (in Hopedale, MA), hosted a Sensory Friendly Santa event.

As parents of children with sensory issues, we know that sometimes it’s hard for some children to be in the mall to see Santa. The lines are long, the lights and noises are overwhelming, and sometimes the kids and parents just can’t stay. For children with autism, ADHD and similar diagnoses, everything can get too overwhelming. And many times it means that their siblings miss out on an opportunity for a visit with St. Nick. We wanted to create an environment where every family could enjoy a holiday party and a visit with Santa if they wanted to. Last year’s event was so successful that we knew we had to do it again. We had parents say that it was the first time that their child was able to sit next to Santa for a photo with the whole family.

The event will be held tomorrow, Sunday, December 8th. You may register your child for the event HERE.

Speaking to parents about their Santa Claus experience has inspired me to try again with Norrin. If I can’t find a nearby event this year, I may have to wait until next. But I know that it’s something we can do and I’m excited. I’m willing to roll the dice.

Have you taken your kids to see Santa Claus? Is there a Quiet Santa event in your town soon? If so, please share in the comments section below!

Catch up with more of Lisa’s recent Babble posts:

Read more of Lisa’s writing at AutismWonderland.

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image via Alysia Butler
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