How to Provide a Positive Holiday Experience with Santa for Kids with Autism
For many families, meeting Santa is a time-honored tradition to look forward to each December, leading to photos of smiling kids (save for a few crying toddlers in the mix). It can be complicated to explain the story of Santa to children, then convince them to sit on the lap of someone they have never before met. That confusion can be amplified when introducing it to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
In an effort to help children and parents experience even more joy this holiday season, we compiled seven tips for those who wish to add jolly ol’ St. Nick into their Christmas festivities.
Download the Hopebridge Autism-Friendly Holiday Guide
Hopebridge created a special holiday guide packed full of easy-to-use resources for those looking to make this season more inclusive and accessible for the autism community.
How to Introduce a Child with Autism to the Magic of Santa:
- Talk about Santa in a way your child can understand.
This step varies from child to child, but the important part is to introduce the idea of Santa before ever meeting him in person. Keep language about Santa and the events as simple as possible. Tailor your explanation to the level of language appropriate for your kiddo. To reassure your him or her, express how Mr. Claus is a kind person who brings presents to all the boys and girls. Take it little by little, and if this is as far as you get this year, that’s ok too.
- Incorporate videos, photos and books about the experience.
While discussing Santa, show your child photos of him with other children. YouTube can also be a great resource to show them what the experience with Santa will look like, but we recommend vetting all books and videos in advance. Not only does this make sure they are developmentally and age-appropriate, but you may also notice unexpected triggers that are specific to your child. You can also ask your child’s BCBA if there is an available social story about the meet-and-greet to reference.
- Practice meet-and-greet elements at home.
Meeting Santa at the mall may seem “simple” from the outside, but there are actually a number of skills involved. Rehearse the various skills at home to lead up to the big day. For example, practice standing in line, waiting and answering specific questions, like, “what is your name?” and “what do you want for Christmas?” verbally, with an ACC device or any other preferred form of communication. While it is not feasible for some, renting or borrowing a Santa suit to practice small steps like this can also prepare your child for the real scenario.
- Bring reinforcement with you to the “big day.”
Having ready-to-go reinforcements during the visit can increase motivation and reward for the child in order to create an overall positive experience. Candy, a special drink or toy are all good options, but you know your child best! We do not suggest holding back the reinforcer until the meeting, as your kiddo may need something tangible and immediate to keep him or her engaged in the preferred behaviors leading up to the big moment.
Candy, a special drink or toy may help provide comfort meeting Santa.
- Seek out sensory-friendly holiday events in your community.
From Autism Speaks’ “Santa Cares” events at malls around the nation to other public or private “Sensitive Santa” events, check your local community calendar to see which inclusive holiday events are already happening in your hometown. Many of these meet-and-greets dim the lighting, lower sound and take place outside of typical business hours to keep crowds and extra stimuli to a minimum. Santa and his elves are often specially trained and laid back … the big man has been known to sit on the floor with kids, when needed. Even better, some of these events offer specific appointment times in order to give children adequate time with Santa while also avoiding the added stress that comes with waiting in a long line.
- Make your own arrangements during regular hours.
If you believe your child can tolerate and would enjoy a standard visit with Santa, go for it! If you need special arrangements, however, consider calling ahead or having a family member stand in line to give the photographer and Santa a heads-up on what is needed. For example, you may want to suggest a chair next to Santa instead of encouraging your child to sit on his lap, or extra props could help get him or her excited during the photo session. If you go this route, reserve your session in advance (if possible) or consider attending during slower hours, such as weekday mornings. Don’t forget that hunger and fatigue can play a role in the meeting, so make sure your child is fed and well-rested before heading to the “North Pole!”
- Arrange your own private meeting.
This will take a little creativity and acting chops, but if taking your child to an unfamiliar place to meet Santa is too much, you could bring Santa somewhere more comfortable instead. Rent or buy a Santa costume and have a family member or close friend (someone who understands the challenges associated with ASD) dress up to play the role of Mr. Claus. This way, your child can have a brief – or lengthy – visit with Kris Kringle in the comfort of your own home or another friendly and familiar environment.
All this being said, we know Santa is not for everyone. Whether or not you choose to have your child meet Santa or participate in other Christmas activities, the holidays can be overwhelming for families touched by autism. We’re on a mission to make it easier and enjoyable for our Hopebridge community. For more ideas for navigating the seasonal changes that surround Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and more, check out our autism-friendly holiday tips and targeted gift guide for kids with autism.
If you would like to incorporate more strategies to help your child cope with certain behaviors and experience all the magic the holidays have to offer, reach out to us at Hopebridge. Our multi-layered autism services include applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy), which can provide your child with the tools he or she needs to enjoy this part of life and more.