One of the great holiday traditions for most American families is a visit with Santa Claus – an opportunity for children to share their Christmas wish list and immerse themselves in the pageantry of lights, decorations, elves and reindeer. Given how in-demand the typical Santa usually is, kids don’t have much time with him and usually have to to endure long lines to wait for their brief visit with him.

These is not an ideal situation for a child on the spectrum – or any special needs child for that matter.

This is why I’m so thrilled that there has been a trend recently of specially-designed events that cater to special-needs children and families that feature “Special Santas.” Earlier this week ABC News featured a story about this as well, and produced this very interesting piece about “Sensitive Santas” and special events that are being created in shopping malls around America. As the story notes, some malls are designating specific times for special needs children and accommodating them in many ways, including not limiting the amount of time kids spent with Santa as well as dimming lights in the mall and turning down (or off) loud music and sounds so the ultra-sensitive kids aren’t overly stimulated (or frightened) by all that typically accompanies a visit to Santa. This is really a wonderful development – and one I’m sure will continue to grow in the future as both the number of special needs kids – as well as corresponding awareness – continue to grow.

We were fortunate enough to attend our own Special Santa event last weekend in Woodinville. The event was open to special needs children and siblings alike. Families were asked to make reservations for Santa in advance – each family was given 30 minutes to spend with Santa so there was no pressure of feeling rushed with other kids waiting. The cost was extremely affordable, only $15 per family, and it included a free 5 x 7 photo of the kids with Santa.

We went straight to the event following Ty’s hockey practice and we were about an hour early for our appointment with Santa. But the organizers did a great job of having other activities for kids and families who were waiting. They set up a special activity room that had various tables and booths manned by volunteers. These activities ranged from a giant box of white rice and another of fake, soft snow, which kids could thrust their hands and arms in to enjoy the various sensations (these are popular with many therapists). There were additional arts and crafts tables and activities such as bean bag tossing and block building to keep kids busy. Ty enjoyed a lot of these activities but Stone was quickly distracted by something near and dear to his stomach when he saw the bake sale on a giant table in the lobby.

And while they did offer gluten free chocolate chip cookies, Stone of course was much more enticed by the doughnuts, cupcakes and brownies (none of which were gluten free) and was very persistent in his attempts to taste them. This is one of those times/areas when it’s so hard to be a parent: you know that it wouldn’t be good for your child to eat these treats, but you feel bad depriving him of something he wants so badly (and feels like should be part of the season). So we relented a bit and let him eat a few donut holes and a cupcake. (We made sure later that he had additional digestive enzymes and other supplements to try to counter the anticipated impact of this food on his system).

Finally our turn with Santa arrived and we were led into our own private room by two elves. Ty was extremely excited (and a little nervous). Stone still doesn’t really understand the whole Santa Claus thing so he was less thrilled and slightly more reluctant to climb onto Santa’s lap once we got into the room. He was much more interested in the giant stack of candy canes sitting next to Santa! But we were able to get he and Ty to both sit on Santa’s lap long enough to get a number of photos snapped and Ty was able to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas (Kung Zhu Pet Accessories, if you’re curious). Santa was great – and extremely patient and understanding – exactly what we needed in that situation.

Renee selected the best shot of the boys with Santa and we picked up the photo and left the event extremely impressed and grateful. If we would have tried to duplicate that experience in a typical mall environment, it would not have been nearly as positive. So thank you again to Northwest Special Families and all of the supporters, volunteers and sponsors of the Special Santa event. It was a very special event for our family – and we look forward to participating in many more in the future.

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