By (special needs friendly) Santa Claus (with support from Elaine Taylor-Klaus)
A Christmas Surprise
I had a rare treat, recently, when I shared a hotel with a convention of the Connecticut Society of Santas. Many of the attendees were also members of the Fraternal Order of the Real Bearded Santas. I'm not kidding – this nice Jewish girl got put on the nice list and was caught “being good.” It was truly inspiring!
As suspected, I learned that there is one lead Santa, and he told me he has a bunch of “subordinate Clauses” that help him do his great work across the world. Yes, Santa has a really good sense of humor, too. And he gave me some great advice to share with parents, what you might call Special Needs Friendly Santa Tips for Parents.
Santa Gets Training, Too
A Santa's training is ongoing. Truly. Santas attend workshops and lectures to prepare for their busy season. They talk about how to encourage children to feel good about themselves and how to improve their story-telling; they learn basic sign-language and first aid – and some of them are even Autism certified! As they swap stories about difficult encounters, they learn from each other about how to handle challenging circumstances. It reminded me a lot like PSS for Santas!
This was an opportunity I couldn't miss – a chance for Santa to speak directly to the parents of ImpactParents! I wanted him as a Guest Expert – who knows more about kids who are ‘nice,' ‘naughty' or ‘neurological,' right?!
So I asked the question I always ask of potential guest experts: “What does Santa want Parents to know?” As we talked about kids with disabilities and all the stresses of the season, I left the encounter with comfort and joy – and a North-Pole-inspired understanding about how parents can work with Santa to help complex kids enjoy the holidays.
But Santas are humble men, so instead of being featured as a Guest Expert, they asked if I, “the writer lady,” would share their thoughts with all of you. I agreed, of course. Who am I to pass up a chance to be Santa's helper! So here goes…
What DOES Santa Want Parents to Know?
Santa (or rather, a few of them) told me they really want parents to know:
1. Don't use Santa as a “weapon” or a threat.
This was universal – every Santa I spoke with said the same thing. Don't threaten your children with the message that Santa is not going to come if your child is "naughty." They all told me that when kids are worried that Santa might not visit their house, they reassure them it is not true. Santa is a gift of heart and love – don't let that become a weapon just because you're frustrated or having a hard day.
2. Nice is not the same thing as perfect.
Yes – you know I jumped up and down when I heard this one. It's not a reasonable expectation that kids are going to be perfect, and Santa doesn't want them to feel bad about themselves when they are doing what kids do – making mistakes. Encourage nice behaviors, demonstrate how to talk to each other with kindness and gentleness, but do not confuse that with a need to be perfect.
3. Avoid the rush – go see Santa early.
Many kids with complex challenges will benefit by going to see Santa early in the season when it's less crowded and stressful. In fact, says Santa, parents might want to visit with Santa a couple of times at a mall and not take a photo. This will allow the child to become comfortable with the experience and may lead to a more relaxed meeting when they go for the real photo. Santa said, “I have actually had children walk by and wave a couple of times before they worked up the courage to come and visit.” In particular, Santa mentioned that the weekend after Thanksgiving in the US is a particularly great time to get your family photos AND your Santa photos done.
4. Make special arrangements, if needed.
Call ahead of time and tell the place that you may need special arrangements. If your child has trouble waiting in line, or freaks out in crowds or with loud noises, or has other challenges that might interfere with his enjoyment of the experience, then ask for the help you need to make it a good experience for your child. Just like Disney, most places will make arrangements to accommodate your child. Santa tells me that they often see a few kids outside of regular “Santa hours” to help all kids connect to the Big Man in Red. In fact, some Santas make home visits for special needs children – and you can really personalize those photos with your own tree, pajamas and a plate of (gluten-free?) cookies and milk.
5. Make sure your child is comfortable.
Some children don't like to sit with Santa for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's as simple as the fact that Santa is tall and the child's feet often don't touch the ground. In cases like this, the child may be willing to stand next to Santa for the picture. Or maybe your child wants to sit on YOUR lap with Santa standing beside you. Or maybe, your child doesn't want a photo taken at all. Everyone's hearts break for the clearly terrified kid who gets dragged up to sit on Santa's lap against his will. That's no fun for anyone, including Santa. Instead of trying to make the visit with Santa fit into your image of what it ‘should' be like – pay attention to what is important to your children, and try to make the experience comfortable and joyful for them. And remember – it is.
6. Let Santa manage the time spent with your child.
Many Santas in public places are generally pretty knowledgeable and experienced. Santa has been through this before, and has been well-trained to deal with kids who pull their beards and struggle with managing their emotions and their impulses. Santas expect that some kids will have trouble adjusting to the environment. So step back, and just let Santa do his thing – he's got your child's best interest at heart, and this is his arena!
More Information for Special Needs-Friendly Santa Visits
Lots of Malls now offer Sensory Friendly Santa Experiences, and you can check local parenting websites for more information. Same goes for locating an Autism certified Santa in your area. And if you aren't able to find one, ask at your local Children's Hospital. Chances are, there's a Santa on call who'd be willing to help out!
And if you are looking for more information about Santa organizations, my friends at the Connecticut Society of Santas support Santa's across the northeast US, or you can look for a Santa in your area that is part of The Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas (an Association of Jolly Jents). You can also check out Santa America online. Wherever you go, the Santa network will connect you to the support you need.
So, these Special Needs Friendly Santa Tips for Parents turn out to be pretty good advice for all kinds of holiday-related festivities.
Even if you're not observing Christmas, I hope my visit with the Santas will help you enjoy your holiday season with peace and joy! Happy Holidays to all – and to all a good season!