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Enjoying the Holidays with a Child on the Spectrum: Visiting Santa

visiting_santa_child_autism Austin
By: Caroline Roesel, MEd, BCBA

Parents want their children to experience the “magic” of the holiday seasons and partake in as many activities as they choose. This can be challenging with a child on the spectrum who may want to partake in holiday activities, but have behaviors that may preclude them from doing so.

Parents who want their child to visit Santa Claus may worry about their child feeling anxious in large crowds, having a hard time waiting in line, and sitting still in Santa’s lap (without crying!). This is overwhelming enough to make caregivers give up before even trying. By using a few principles of behavior and planning ahead, your child could master the skills needed to have a great experience visiting Santa.

Managing Crowds

If your child is overwhelmed by large groups of people, contact Santa’s place of work and ask when there are typically less people. Smaller crowds are more common when Santa events first open; if you can arrive a bit before the event opens, you will likely encounter shorter lines.

Most children have toys or treats that help them cope when they are overwhelmed. Bring these items with you to the event. Watch your child; they will likely demonstrate “warning signals” that let you know when they’re growing uncomfortable. When you see these warning signals, give them their toys or treats. Do no wait until they are having a tantrum to try and calm them, this may inadvertently teach them “When I have a tantrum, I get cool stuff.” Not the message you want to send!

Contact Santa’s Helpers

Many Santa events often have a contact number. You can call to let the event workers know that you’re coming and you have a child with special needs. Tell them if your child would be more comfortable with certain changes, such as a speedier Santa visit, standing next to Santa instead of sitting on his lap, or giving Santa a list of desired presents instead of telling him verbally. People are happy to accommodate when they can, so don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Practice at Home

If you want your child to take a picture with Santa, but are worried they will not tolerate sitting with him, practice taking pictures with different family members and family friends before you go to the event. Have your child go through the motions of sitting on someone’s lap and smiling at a camera. Try and practice this as much as you can 3 to 4 days prior to seeing Santa. The more comfortable your child is in front of the camera, the more likely they will be to say “Cheese!” on the big day!

Children with ASD can be a part of holiday fun and festivities. With a little planning and practice, caregivers can help their children with special needs to partake in the fun!

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