Visiting Santa with your special needs child

With a little pre-planning, you can help your child have a memorable Santa experience! If you know of any special needs holiday programs in your area, please let us know so we can spread the word. Email us: .

by Dawn Villarreal, One Place for Special Needs


Where to go?visiting santa
Each year more park districts and malls are offering a special Santa day for special needs kids. Check in with your state or local disability group. Many local groups or therapy centers will have a special Santa day or know someone who is organizing one in your area.

Ask questions
If you plan to visit a mall Santa, drop by on your own and ask the staff if they are handicapped accessible. Is the Santa familiar with special needs issues? Is there a time/day that is less crowded? Sometimes an elf may be a part-time teacher who knows how to work with special needs kids. It's worth it to ask the right questions.

When you can't leave the house
Some children are unable to leave the home to visit Santa. One organizations is working to give these children a memorable Christmas Experience. Santa-America, founded in 2003, brings the highest quality Santas together across America to focus on a special mission: an unhurried visit by a loving, committed, trained Santa to families facing physical and emotional crisis. Santa-America is a member of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO) and Children's Hospice International (CHI).

If you want to create a wonderfully personalized video from Santa, make sure you stop at Portable North Pole. Here you can answer questions about your child. This includes special efforts you would like to see your child improve upon, favorite things and a gift item he/she really wants. This clever Santa video seamlessly adds the information into Santa's talk to your child. If you download your child's photo or gift item, these are also included in Santa's book that he opens in the video.

Calming Santa fears
That strange looking man with the huge beard and red suit can be more than a little intimidating for children. Chances are if your child was afraid of Halloween, she will also be afraid of Santa. Knowing what to expect can go a long way toward calming those anxieties.

Santa America made a great video called What's Different about Santa? Santa helps prepare children for their visit by talking about his outfit and beard, how it might feel if you sit on his lap and why he wears his outfit. While this video was specifically designed for children on the autism spectrum, all children can benefit from this friendly video.

Please respect your child's fears and don't force her to sit with Santa. A child's anxieties will increase the longer she waits in line. It's better to leave the line and try again another year rather than having an anxiety meltdown in front of Santa and the hundreds of other families waiting for their turn.

Give Santa a note
Your local Santa will appreciate knowing how to communicate with your child. Give your child a more meaningful experience by prepping Santa ahead of time. When you are next in line, have a brief note to hand the "elf." She can easily pass that information along to Santa before your child sits with him.

Here is an example:

My child has a disability. It helps if you can ask questions with only yes or no answers. Johnny is 6 and likes Hot Wheels cars and Barney. He wants a Toy Story DVD and Hot Wheels race set.

Get a special needs Santa day in your community
Our children deserve to have the same experiences as other children. Call on your own park district to set up a program or organize with your local disability group. It is in their best interests to create a positive experience for all families.

Here are a few great Santa programs that you can use as examples:

santa house The town of Naperville, Illinois has it's own Santa House, an outdoor structure with a waiting area and Santa's viewing room. Parents call the park district and a reserved time is given for the family. By having reservations, this drastically cuts down the wait time for Santa. An "elf" gives a parent a slip of paper to write any facts about the child.

The note is given to Santa. After he has read the information, the family is brought into Santa's private viewing room. Santa takes his time talking with the child in a quiet and relaxed atmosphere. The children do not feel rushed to leave.

This special night started as a single evening event after special needs families began asking for such a program, and has now expanded to several evenings due to demand.

Special Kids Day - Since 1990, local businesses, community organizations and a local college have combined forces to create a kids day for special needs children. Special Kids Day has evolved into its own not-for-profit organization and several kids days take place throughout the year. Many volunteers work to create a truly wonderful day with Santa, make crafts and get their photo taken. All of this is free for special needs families.

Other resources

Holiday traditions with your special needs child - How to accommodate your child to enjoy the Christmas festivities

Surviving the holidays: Gift giving and opening presents - Involving your child in the gift giving process, receiving gifts from relatives and opening presents

Surviving the holidays: Family dinners - Our article on handling a variety of special needs issues at the dinner table

Surviving the holidays: Dealing with relatives - Suggestions for handling insensitive or misinformed relatives over the holidays

When your child is too old for Santa - What to do when your child is too old to continue believing in Santa

Holiday resources - Over 50 articles, videos and tips on having a fun holiday with your special needs child

Dawn VillarrealAbout the writer

Dawn Villarreal runs One Place for Special Needs, a national disability resource that lets you find local and online resources, events and even other families in your neighborhood plus thousands of online disability resources! Stay awhile and check out the site. Reprint permission granted by including: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs