Every year at Christmas time, you may be fighting an internal struggle – should we go visit Santa or skip it? Sure, you’d love to have that moment with Santa—your child is excited about Christmas, that’s for sure—and getting a good picture with him would be a bonus. BUT, if that Santa visit is in a mall or another high-traffic location, chances are that it’s a big sensory storm for your child—the lights, the music, the crowds, the waiting—and it may be just too much for them.
The good news is that many places are now offering special times for children with autism to visit Santa in a more sensory-friendly environment. It was an offer like this that allowed Erin Deely and her husband to take their son, Brayden, to see Santa at their local mall in North Carolina. The Deelys thought their chance of having Brayden visit Santa and get that traditional holiday snapshot was not possible after their son was diagnosed at age 3. But thanks to the Caring Santa program, organized by Autism Speaks, Brayden got to hang out with Santa on his own terms. As Erin explained it, “He (Santa) got down on his stomach and just started playing with him. They didn’t even talk to each other, really, they just bonded and played, and Brayden started to be really excited and started looking at him and smiling.”
Thanks to this Santa, Brayden and his family had the holiday experience they had always hoped for. And while the Caring Santa program is in malls in 120 cities, there are similar sensory-friendly Santa events happening in additional locations, so chances are there’s one near you.
For many children with autism, a simple trip to visit Santa at the mall (or any public place) can be a complete sensory avalanche. Bright lights, loud music, long lines, bold decorations…the list could go on…can cause many children (and not to mention, parents) a lot of distress. So much distress, in fact, a lot of families have given up this family tradition altogether.
The good news is that many malls and other places that Santa visits are now making special accommodations to meet the needs of those that have sensory concerns. These sensory-friendly Santa events used to be less common, but over the years they’ve grown in popularity because of their success and now most places are holding such events. Often malls will designate a time in which they’ll lower lights, turn down/off the music, and just make it a more calming environment so that you can worry less about a potential sensory overload.
So if this is something you want to try out, now is the time to start looking around for such an event in your area because they are often scheduled early in the holiday season (and sometimes there’s only one day/time, so we wouldn’t want you to miss out!).
If you want to get an idea about how one of these sensory-friendly Santa events works, check out the video above for a good example.
In the past we’ve talked about different places – such as museums and movie theatres – that have made special arrangements for those with autism in order to make visits more sensory-friendly. Some malls across the country are doing something similar this holiday season by offering special Santa visits. This is a time where, in some cases, the lights are lowered, store music is turned off and lines are short, eliminating some of the distracting and/or upsetting environmental factors that may impact an autistic child during a trip to see Santa.
Two malls currently offering “sensory-friendly” Santa hours include Maine Mall – which offered four ‘Caring Claus Sundays’ – and Lynnhaven Mall in Virginia – which provided the Autism Society of Tidewater a chance to visit with Santa before the mall opened (check out this article).
This is yet another great example of how businesses and local organizations are giving families the opportunity to enjoy time together – it’s just a little adjustment for these businesses, but a world of difference for families touched by autism.
I’m sure there are more malls and locations that may offer something similar this holiday season, so if you know of one, please share it with us here!