For many families, the holidays start off with the traditional trip to the local shopping mall, where kids sit on Santa’s lap to relay their gift wish list and take a commemorative photo. But for a family who has kids with special needs, they say this typical holiday ritual can make each family member feel as if they have a starring role in “A Christmas Story.”
“There’s so much going on just to leave your house,” said Rebecca Adams, single mom to four special needs kids: two adult daughters, and twin boys with autism. Trying to make the holidays special for the twins, Alex and Ryan, 7, isn’t easy.
“It becomes a major chore to get the boys dressed and into the car,” said Rebecca. “The ride itself can be a struggle.”
At the mall, there are bright lights, loud noises, crowds and long lines.
“I try to keep the twins calm while standing in line; we get all the way up to the front – it’s their turn, and the child won’t go near Santa,” said Rebecca.
The Arizona Autism Network of the West Valley (AZA NOW), a DES community partner, is one of several autism advocacy groups that participates in a “Sensitive Santa” event, an entire experience geared toward kids like Alex and Ryan.
The Sensitive Santa experience starts in the line before their turn with Santa. AZA NOW provides snacks, crafts, and games to keep the kids occupied while waiting to see him.
“It was amazing,” said Rebecca. “The boys weren’t anxious. They were calm and they were excited. They joined their friends at a table to make crafts, so they didn’t just wait in line.”
If kids aren’t comfortable sitting on Santa’s lap, Santa may get out of the chair and come to them. Some kids may just play with the toys that are provided in the room. Other kids might be content to just walk through the room. Not Rebecca’s kids—they had a chat with Santa.
“They did it! No meltdowns,” said Rebecca. “I was actually able to get a picture of me, the boys and Santa … the first time ever! It was the best thing! It’s an overwhelming, wonderful experience. You just want to bottle up that feeling and keep it forever.”
Twins Ryan (left) and Alex Adams, age 6, and their mother, Rebecca, gather for their very first picture with Santa. This year, Rebecca plans to have a wrapped gift for her sons under Santa’s tree.
Events are being held in Arizona over the next few weekends:
Sensitive Santa - Phoenix Area
Saturday, December 9
9:00am – 4:00pm,
Autism Academy Peoria Campus
6810 W. Thunderbird Rd., Peoria
Saturday, December 16
9:00am – 4:00pm
Autism Academy Gilbert Campus
1540 N. Burk St., Gilbert
Register with AZA NOW
Sensory Friendly Santa – Tucson
Sunday, December 17
9:00am – 12:00pm
1661 N. Swan Road (in the park at Pima & Swan)
Reservations suggested: (720) 505-6491 or KatieRBiehl@gmail.com
Holiday Tips for Parents of Kids with Special Needs
Rebecca Adams is a board member of Arizona Autism Network of the West Valley (AZA NOW), a DES community partner. “Being around and involved in the special needs community has been part of my life since my oldest daughter received her first diagnosis over 15 years ago.
With four children with special needs, Rebecca Adams has learned a lot over the years about what to do and what not to do over the holidays. She offers these tips:
- The holidays that you had before will probably never be the holidays you’ll have going forward. You’ll learn to do things differently. For example, you’ll learn to decorate your tree differently – no glass ornaments, no family heirloom ornaments.
- You don’t need many gifts.
- When visiting family or friends, expect a few meltdowns, so just breathe. Bring their favorite blankets – something that will calm them, and plan to spend only a minimum amount of time there. You know when your child has had enough, so don’t push to stay longer.
- Don’t plan on big holiday parties if your child can’t handle too many people and noises. If you see your child crying or cowering in the corner that means it’s too much. So tone everything down. Keep it small or simple.
Alex and Ryan Adams started in the Arizona Early Intervention Program (AzEIP) when they were 2-1/2 years old, then transitioned to DDD. The family receives speech, occupational and habilitation therapies, attendant care and respite services.
“I’ve been really blessed with all the DDD services we receive,” said Rebecca.