5 Tips to Help Children With Autism Visit Santa
With some planning, parents can offer their children with autism a satisfying experience with Santa. Here are five tips for making the trek to see Santa a merry one.
Contributor: Thomas Frazier, II, PhD
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We’re all familiar with the holiday shopping mall scene: Bright lights, bag-toting crowds, gaggles of kids, blaring holiday music and over-the-top decorations.
Most of us think it’s festive, or if not, tolerable. But to a kid with autism, it can be terrifying. The lights, colors and sounds can cause sensory overload. Add a loud stranger in bright red clothes and strange white beard– and this can overwhelm children with autism, as well as mom and dad.
But these children don’t have to be denied the fun of this old holiday tradition. With some planning, parents can offer them a satisfying experience with Santa, says Thomas Frazier II, PhD, Director of Cleveland Clinic Children’s Center for Autism.
He offers 5 tips for making the trek to see Santa a merry one:
Take some of the anxiety out of the trip by helping your child understand what to expect. Create a story about the visit with Santa and spell out everything step-by-step. Use short sentences and pictures to show your child how he or she will get to Santa and what will happen once he or she meets him.
Create a schedule and share it with your child to help prepare him or her. In the schedule, show when the visit with Santa will occur in relation to the regular events of the day. This will help your child to anticipate the change in his or her routine.
Encourage your child to be patient and well-mannered by offering an incentive for good behavior, whether it’s a toy, treat or privilege immediately after the visit with Santa. This helps motivate children to cooperate and gets them in the right mindset for a positive experience.
Before your visit with your child, call or visit on your own and ask critical questions: What are the best times to visit? Can your child be placed at the front of the line? Can Santa and his staff take special measures to accommodate your child’s needs?
Kids with autism vary in their tolerance of new places and people. If a trip to a crowded mall does not work for your child, consider a visit with Santa at a church, local organization or school. Or with a red suit and a hat, you can bring Santa right into your own living room.
Also, some communities offer “Sensitive Santa,” a low-key experience with a Santa trained in working with children with autism. You could check to see if this is an option near you.
No matter how you approach a visit with Santa, it’s important to consider your own child’s tolerance for different environments and plan accordingly, Ms. Dimitriou says. Respecting your child’s own tolerance level will go a long way in creating a positive, memorable experience.