This Season’s New Holiday Hotness: Sensory-Friendly Santa Meet & Greets

It’s that time of year again when we plop our kids down on a stranger’s lap and tell them to “say cheese!” In all seriousness though, while a visit with Santa is a Christmas tradition for many kids, for some, it can be anything but an enjoyable experience. This is especially true for kids with special needs—and that’s what makes sensory-friendly Santas popping up across the nation such a welcome new trend for the holidays.

Bright colors, blaring music and big crowds are not a recipe for a jolly good time for kids with autism or those sensitive to excessive stimuli. This year, many of these kids will finally get a chance to tell Santa what they want thanks to sensory-friendly Santa experiences, like one such event at Bass Pro Shops in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

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photo: Mike Arney via Unsplash

“We want to minimize the sensory overload for some of the kids,” said Mary Tiernan, a vice president of philanthropy for the May Institute. The May Institute provides services to kids with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities and partnered with Bass Pro Shops for the special event. “We want them to experience what their peers are experiencing.”

The Sensory Santa experience, which many “photos with Santa” events have begun adopting across the country, provides a quiet and calm environment for kids with autism and sensory issues. The lights are dimmed, the music is off and there are no jingle bells or booming chants of “Ho Ho Ho!” to scare off the kids. The events also require advanced reservations for timed entry in order to eliminate the need to wait in line with other anxious kids.

So what can you do if you don’t have a Sensory Santa experience near you? Rose Morris, CEO and founder of Abram’s Nation, a company dedicated to aiding families with special needs, shared some tips with us. “Meeting Santa Claus in a crowded and loud shopping mall is a nightmare for families with special needs, as the sensory overload in this environment often leads to a catastrophic meltdown,” Morris explained.

Photo: Malibu Country Mart via Facebook 

She advises that parents first put themselves in their child’s shoes. “When you think about it, we teach our children from an early age to not talk to strangers, but then ask them to be comfortable with sitting on a the lap of a complete stranger. Add in the heightened sensory overload from the bright lights, warm mall, loud music, other screaming kids and the smells, this can be extremely overwhelming for a child with special needs. It’s important for you as a parent to understand what could potentially be a trigger for your child, so you can better monitor their needs.”

It’s also important to prepare your child fully for what will happen, Morris says. Explain everything that will happen through the process by “painting the picture for your child, either with words or pictures.”

Last, but not least, Morris emphasizes that it’s important to give your kids control over the situation. “Allow your child to decide what they are comfortable with, by giving them options. For example, when it comes to meeting Santa, allow them to choose whether they want to sit on Santa’s lap or if they prefer to stand next to Santa.”

We’re so here for more of these inclusive holiday experiences throughout the country!

—Shahrzad Warkentin



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