Autism can be especially difficult for children during the holiday season, but some cities and towns are making it a little easier with the help of so-called Sensitive or Silent Santas. Many children with autism, and their parents, have the same desire to experience a visit with Santa as neurotypical children and their parents, but the bright lights, enormous crowds and loud excitement of the event is often too overwhelming.
As society becomes more aware about the special challenges of autism and the one in 88 children born whom the illness affects, more locations are providing an alternative to the traditional visit with Santa by employing a Sensitive Santa. A visit with a Sensitive Santa is typically directed only at autistic and other sensory sensitive children allowing for smaller crowds and less of the accompanying noise.
During a visit with Sensitive Santa loud music and ho-ho-hos may be left out, as well as bright lights dimmed to create a much calmer and straightforward atmosphere. While not all children with autism will need these particular accommodations to make a visit with Santa a success, for those who do, it is a much appreciated holiday gift.
Other parts of the holiday season can be stressful for children with autism as well such as Christmas parties and large family gatherings which are often crowded, loud, bright, full of unexpected noises and unknown people. Autism can be made a bit easer at Christmas within these situations as well; just as with the help of Sensitive Santas.
While no two children with autism are exactly alike, there are some general tips for getting through these events with a child with autism who finds the crowds, noises, lights and other sensory factors overwhelming. Preparation for the activity should begin early. Discussing what will occur and who is to be expected at the event may be the first step in preparation. The use of social stories and looking at or drawing pictures of what may happen may also be helpful. If it is a family event and the guests who will be attending can be readily identified, creating a photo album containing pictures of the expected family members may also be reassuring to the autistic child.
For the autistic child for whom loud noises are an issue, ear plugs or sound muffling headphones might be offered. If an event is quite crowded, it may be best to avoid spending too much time there with an autistic child. If it is expected to be an unavoidably long day, preparing a quiet activity or even creating a quiet space where the child can take a break from the action when needed will also be helpful.
If particular food aversions and preferences are an issue for the child, discussing the menu with the them ahead of time may be useful. Trying out new foods that might be presented ahead of time can serve to build comfort with an autistic child. If it appears that the child will simply not be able to eat what is being served at the event or if the child has a special diet that cannot be accommodated at the event, packing some of his or her favorite foods or snacks should be considered to avoid unnecessary stress.
Above all, the importance of simply knowing the child with autism and the amount of sensory input he or she is able to tolerate is key. Being able to recognize when he or she is becoming overwhelmed is important so that a break, short walk or some quiet alone time can be initiated before the child becomes overwhelmed and stressed. With a little help from sensitive adults, as well as Sensitive Santas, perhaps Christmas can be made a bit easier for many children with autism.
By Michele Wessel