Sensitive Santa Program Turns a Simple Wish into Reality Nationwide

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Sensory friendly visit to Santa provides holiday cheer to children with special needs.

santaWith a serious look, Jason Montefusco walked toward Santa, keeping a cautious eye on the man with the white beard.

Slowly, the five-year-old climbed up into the seat, slid closer to Santa and reached out to touch the white pouf atop his red hat.

His three-year-old brother took a seat next to him. A photographer snapped their picture. A typical family adventure this time of the year, but it’s not.

Jason has autism, and children with autism can experience sensory over-stimulation
when visiting a mall with new sights and sounds, loud crowds pushing in line, and sitting on a stranger’s lap (even if it is Santa). As a result, families with children with special needs often skip the traditional mall visit. Now all families, no matter their different ability, can partake in this holiday tradition because of the prevalence of a “sensitive Santa.”

More Information on Sensory Over-Stimulation and Tips to Deal with It

Jason’s trip to visit Santa was successful due to the Sensitive Santa Program created by Glimcher Realty. The Sensitive Santa Program invites children with special needs and their families to enter participating malls before store hours to experience Santa in a sensory-friendly environment. The lights and music are low and staff is instructed to avoid loud and distracting movements. Instead of standing in line, children are given play dough and crayons with paper to use until they are called up for their turn. Children do not have to stand in line but can play, sit in wagons decorated for the holidays, or be escorted around the mall to look at decorations. Each child gets a special picture with Santa.

The director of a Dayton, Ohio nonprofit that serves children and their families with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), shared a wish for his son with autism to Glimcher Realty, owner of 22 malls across the country. It was a simple wish. He told Glimcher, “I have always just wanted to take my son to visit Santa.” From that simple wish, Sensitive Santa was launched in Dayton at a Glimcher owned mall. The program was so successful that it was expanded nationally.

“The response from communities has been overwhelming! Hundreds of families have shown up,” stated Jessie Fausett, director of marketing for Glimcher Realty. “Children with all types of disabilities are showing up to have their time with Santa Claus…families and children want the same things all of us do this time of year. We are so proud of this program and its impact on the community. Next year you can bet that Sensitive Santa will once again make its debut at Glimcher property malls”.
Fausett also shared a special moment she witnessed about the impact of their Sensitive Santa Program. A five-year-old boy with Down syndrome, who had never been in a mall due to anxiety from sensory stimuli and crowds, made his first visit. The Sensitive Santa Program allowed him to enter the mall early to explore without the concerns of crowds, loud noises and big lines. “He was so fascinated with the escalator (having never seen one), we let him ride it many times before his special visit with Santa,” said Fausett. “It was great to give him his ‘proud’ moment and I will never forget it.”

AbilityPath.org Tips
If there isn’t a Sensitive Santa Program in your community, create your own! Here are a few tips to help:Location. See if your local school, church, or therapist will donate a large space free of loud noises and distraction. Keep the decorations simple, so it isn’t too distracting or over-stimulating for the children.Santa. Purchase or ask an organization to donate a Santa suit for 2-3 hours. Ask a father of a child with special needs or a member of your community who is familiar with disabilities to participate as Santa Clause.Toys. Bring a few toys to occupy children as they wait for their turn to sit on Santa’s Lap. Click here for a list of appropriate toys.

Coffee. This is a MUST for all parent gatherings!

Event. Invite 10-15 families to attend your Santa party. It is advised that you keep the group to a small size to avoid madness, mayhem, and sensory overload from too many children wanting to sit on Santa’s Lap. You can create your event and invitation through AbilityPath.org.

Find Parents in Your Community to Help Create a Sensitive Santa Program

References
“Tampa’s ‘Sensitive Santa’ Allow Children with Autism to Get Photographs, too”. TampaBay.com. (accessed December 6, 2010).

Resources and Links
Holiday Survival Guide including Listing of Sensitive Santa Locations
Thriving During the Holidays
Share Holiday Tips and Recipes with other Parents

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