At Caring Santa Events, Kids With Autism Can Meet St. Nick On Their Own Terms

The relationship between young kids and Santa Claus is a magical one. Writing a wish list and mailing it to the North Pole. Being extra careful to "be good" so those wishes are granted. Listening for reindeer hooves on the roof on Christmas Eve. Of all the experiences and rituals that connect children with Father Christmas, one of the most precious for many kids and their parents happens face-to-face: getting to see and meet Santa in person!

Visiting Santa and getting a cute photo has become traditional, but for some families, the tradition can feel out of reach. Generally, meet-and-greets with Father Christmas involve a flood of stimulation: they happen at malls or large department stores, involve talking to strangers, and sitting on a stranger's lap. And for most families of kids with autism, the sensory overload of meeting Santa is simply too high. So they've cut the tradition out of their holiday plans. But Autism Speaks is changing that.
Through their Caring Santa program, Autism Speaks offers "sensory-friendly Santa events" available to families of children on the autism spectrum at malls across the country.

The Caring Santa meet-and-greets are carefully designed to accommodate the kids they serve. Events generally take place after-hours at the mall, with Santa actors who have received training and guidance through the program. In this calmer, quieter time, kids can connect with Santa in their preferred manner. They aren't rushed by a line of families behind them. They aren't pushed to jump onto a lap or recite their wish lists. They can be themselves.

As Erin Deely, who brought her son Brayden to a Caring Santa event, explained it: "It's him literally being himself, and Santa getting on his level and accommodating him, rather than the other way around."

Giving Brayden the chance to take his time getting comfortable with Father Christmas in a mellow environment made all the difference. "At the end, Brayden didn't want to leave. He kept saying, 'More Santa,'" Erin says. Now that's magical!

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