It’s a classic holiday photo op: a child sitting on Santa’s lap. But many parents never get that chance because a visit to Santa is just too scary for their children with special needs.
Michigan mom Dawn Eastom’s son C.J., who is 5, has a neurodevelopmental disorder that makes unfamiliar sights and sounds unbearable.
“My son has sensory overload when he’s not in his normal environmental, and a lot of things trigger the meltdowns,” she tells the Livingston Daily.
So for the last two years Eastom has taken C.J. to visit Sensitive Santa.
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Sensory-friendly Santa programs for special-needs children have taken off across the country at community centers, shopping malls, libraries, schools and other public places.
Independence Center will host a “Caring Santa” event from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 11.
The key to these special visits? All is calm, nothing is bright.
For these visits, Santa’s elves are sometimes therapists familiar with what might trigger apprehension for children with autism, cerebral palsy or seizure disorders.
Sometimes, Santa is a therapist, too.
“Sometimes Santa talks, and sometimes Santa doesn’t. We’ll do things to help them engage with Santa, like he’ll have a favorite toy or candy. He’ll even get down on the floor,” occupational therapist Meghan Stevens told the Livingston Daily about the Sensitive Santa program C.J. and his mom visit.
The Autism Speaks advocacy group co-sponsors “caring Santa” and “sensitive Santa” programs at hundreds of shopping malls across the country, where special-needs children and their parents are invited in before or after hours to visit Santa.
To create “sensory-friendly environments,” mall lights are dimmed, the lines are short or non-existent, the music is turned down “and all the sound you hear is the sound of the children in the background,” Paula Mueller, general manager of Northtown Mall in Blaine, Minn., tells CBS affiliate WCCO.
“Sometimes the only chance special-needs kids get to come and see Santa is where the environment is quieter, friendlier and there are no lines.”
Nichole Lamarsh took her 4-year-old son, Coletin, who has autism, to visit a Sensitive Santa on Sunday at a mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They tried to visit the regular mall Santa on Saturday, but “the lines are way too long for him to be able to tolerate,” she told KCRG in Cedar Rapids.
They went back on Sunday to visit Sensitive Santa, who visits the mall once a year.
“It’s a big deal because you know we want (Coletin) to be like the other typical kids and know who Santa is, and what Santa does this time of the year … to let him know that it’s a special time of the year for him,” said Lamarsh.
Public libraries in Forsyth County, Georgia, are also planning Sensitive Santa events this months, creating smaller, quieter settings for children to meet the jolly old elf.
“Sitting on Santa’s lap can be uncomfortable or scary for children with special needs, as well as frustrating for their parents who just want to give their child a positive experience with such a beloved part of the holiday season,” Laura Bradley, program manager for the library system, tells the Forsyth County News in Cumming, Ga.
Flash photography is often a hurdle. Photographer Serena Block in North Carolina began taking portraits of special-needs children after her daughter was diagnosed with mosaic Down syndrome, reports the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina.
She bought special equipment to photograph her daughter, who is sensitive to light.
Comparing notes with parents of other special-needs children, she learned that most didn’t have family photos because lighting was an issue. So Block created the Wonderfully Made nonprofit photography group, which this year began offering free portraits with Santa.
Dozens of children showed up on Saturday to take photos in the quiet, controlled portrait room Block set up at a local rehabilitation center. The process moved methodically, with each family spending about 15 minutes with Santa.
The experience left one mother in tears.
“He’s never gotten to experience it, so for him to all of a sudden get up and be like OK and walk right in (with) Santa was great,” Lisa Braun told TWC News in Wilmington, N.C. of her son’s visit.
“I get the family and friends sending me pictures of their kids with Santa, and it’s kind of, you know, heartbreaking a little bit knowing we can’t do mall pictures ... so we miss out as an autism family.
“I actually started crying in there because it was just very, very surreal that I get Santa pictures this year and I can send them to my family.”