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.
Traveling with your children on a plane can be an extremely stress-inducing thing—for both you and your child. There are many sensory “unfriendly” barriers your child will have to hurdle – loud noises, weird smells, wearing a seatbelt, crowding, etc., etc. – and then for you, you’re trying to anticipate it all. It can be tough. Plus, on top of that, you hope that people and the airline will show compassion and care as you try to navigate through all of the obstacles.
If you’ve looked online lately, you may have seen some unfavorable attention being placed on United Airlines after a mom claims she and her family were removed from one of their flights in response to an exchange with crew about a special food request for her daughter who has autism (read more). And I think sometimes it’s easier to share, thanks to the Internet, when you have a bad or negative experience. However, it’s important to remember that many people who have special needs or require certain accommodations travel every day and often have wonderful experiences. And it’s nice to call those out too.
So this all leads me to a mom named Shawna who wrote a “thank you” note to JetBlue and shared in on her blog. In it, she describes how she and her son, who has high-functioning autism, travel often and she knows how complicated it can be. Her son has a particularly tough time in the boarding area with its loud announcements and large crowds. It was the first time she was flying JetBlue and not only was it easy to note her son’s special needs when booking the ticket online, the great service continued throughout their trip – JetBlue boarded Shawna and her son before the announcements began, gave them seats away from the bathrooms (so they wouldn’t have to deal with the potential smells), and were friendly from start to finish. (You can read the full note on her blog).
Kudos to JetBlue for going the extra mile and having practices in place that can make traveling a bit smoother – it really does make the difference.
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.
You hear a lot about various apps you can get on your iPad, iPhone, etc, that can help serve as a voice for those with autism, particularly for those that are nonverbal. This is a similar idea, but utilizes the benefit of a sensory (tactile) experience – and can be an option for people who have sight difficulties.
Industrial designer Jeffrey Brown created the device after realizing that touch, sound and smell could communicate an idea – and from that, he created a board that includes six cubes covered in various textures. Audio is recorded or downloaded for each cube – such as “I need to go to the bathroom” / “I am hungry” / “I want to play now”—and the user just needs to squeeze a cube for the audio to play.
What an interesting and good idea if this is able to provide a voice to some that currently don’t have that ability right now, which could ultimately help alleviate some of the frustration that comes with communication challenges – and provide some independence and empowerment to the user. Read more here.