For most children, Christmas is the most fantastic time of the year: bright lights, presents, family gatherings, singing, laughter, etc. But for autistic children, Christmas can be particularly stressful. All the stimulating sounds and sights that non-autistic children enjoy during the holidays can be the very things that wear out autistic children. (See Temple Grandin’s description of difficulties she faced during childhood for a first-hand account!). This leaves many parents and relatives of autistic children at a loss for activities to do during the holiday season.
Luckily, this Christmas some malls and community centers are having autism-friendly Santa events. These events typically take place outside normal mall hours to provide a quiet, more predictable environment for autistic children and their families. Lights are dimmed, music is turned off, and parents are typically asked to fill out a form beforehand to give the Santas a heads up on any special requests and things on the kids’ wish lists. The Santas are also trained to have a calmer demeanor which is more amenable to autistic children.
How do these Santas become autism-friendly? One Santa interviewed by the Associated Press says he does the following:
- greets the child with a few mellow “Ho ho ho” greetings
- If an autistic child responds, he then smiles or signals for them to come closer. At this point, he says that usually most autistic kids stay away but watch him.
- After a while, some of the children will come back to interact with him. Some will then give him a high five, or sit on his lap.
- Other children might also trust Santa if they realize Santa is willing to help them do activities they like, such as pushing them on swings.
Basically, an autism-friendly Santa will keep things low key, not force the child out of his or her comfort zone, and respond to what the child wants. With luck, the child will feel comfortable to interact with Santa enough so the family has a chance to take pictures.
So how do you find autism-friendly Santa? Your best bet is to call your local malls and to get in touch with your local autism groups, as these events may not be well publicized. Best of luck creating a supportive holiday environment for your autistic child this Christmas!