Visiting Santa in a busy mall with waits of an hour and music blasting, only to have the kids climb up on the same lap hundreds, if not thousands, kids have already sat on that week can be stressful. Now, consider taking a child with special needs into that situation, and the stress that naturally comes gets amped up several notches. There are many more things to consider, and parents can get caught between the desire to provide this classic holiday experience and the very real practicalities-especially when you have both special needs and normally developing kids to consider.

Since my eight year-old was 18 months old, he’s had a fear of sitting on Santa’s lap. It’s gotten better: We have pictures of him through the years going from expressions of pure terror on his face to the recent cautious look. My four year-old autistic boy, however, has barely tolerated being in the same building as Santa. Last year, we avoided the entire thing and the boys just wrote him a letter.

Over the past month I’ve been trying to find a way that both my typical developing kid and my special needs boy could enjoy (or at least not scream, cry and run away) seeing St. Nick in person. I’ve found a few ways to make this happen.

  1. Find a local photographer who is bringing Santa to their studio. The cost of this can be the same—or even cheaper—than the overpriced mall pictures. They usually schedule families in 15-minute increments, so your wait shouldn’t be more than a few minutes even if they are running behind. Without all the noise and pomp and circumstance, kids can be more at ease (and so can the parents!)
  2. Caring Santa! I just learned about this wonderful program through Many malls across the US are participating in the Caring Santa program, which offers a specific day/time for kids and families to come in and visit Kris Kringle without the lines, music, and often times, before the malls are open or get busy. They have a list of participating malls divided by states here.
  3. Autism Speaks has a similar program to Caring Santa called Sensitive Santa. These are harder to find as I haven’t been able to find a current list of malls participating, but a quick call or online search for your local mall with the words “Sensitive Santa” should help provide some insight.

These are just a few ways you can help ease the stress of the Season for your special needs child, while keeping some of the fun and tradition going. If your child is really opposed to this, why not come up with other ways to make holiday memories. Last year writing our letters to Santa was just as memorable as years before when we had photographic evidence of him. As I’ve learned, I can’t be so concerned with my own desire to make things look a certain way. The real joy of the holiday comes from acceptance and not by trying to force fit an image onto it and your kids because it’s what YOU want.


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