It may seem early in the year – given that it is not yet Halloween – but I’m already on the hunt for holiday cheer. I’m on the hunt for the perfect Santa experience for my boy. I’m doing so because I know that, in my area, if you don’t hire a Santa now, you won’t get one.
We haven’t had success with Santa experiences over the years. For Jack’s first Christmas, we did what everyone else does – we went with a mall Santa. Of course, what we didn’t anticipate was that after waiting an hour plus in line to see the jolly old man, that Santa would need to go “feed his reindeer” when we were next in line to see him. An extra hour plus of waiting (it must take a long time to feed those reindeer) and we finally got to see Santa, but we had to wake Jack up to do it. He was 9 months old.
The next year, we saw Santa at my 9-year old cousin’s holiday concert. While the atmosphere was quieter, Jack was more antsy that year. He was a relatively new walker after only gaining the skill a few months prior, so he was in constant motion. We were seeing with increasing frequency behaviors that we didn’t know were sensory processing issues. We just thought he was sensitive. That, and the photographer was not fabulous. We considered it a bust. He was 20 months old at the time.
Last year, we had words for what we were seeing all along. Autism. Sensory Processing Disorder. Other diagnoses that we were only beginning to understand. What we did know was that conventional Santa experiences did not work for our boy, so when the local autism society offered a Santa experience tailored for our kids, I jumped on it.
I was wrong. The whole setup was a recipe for disaster for my boy. There were kids everywhere. It was housed in an ABA school located in a warehouse, so the “private room” where we saw Santa had an open ceiling. He heard every noise. Santa tried to pick him up, which was a mistake. Despite me telling them that Jack was still largely non-verbal, Santa kept asking him questions, pressuring him to talk. Santa’s speaking, the ambient noise from the warehouse, being held in Santa’s lap, and the florescent lighting, it was all much too much for him. Other friends of ours have had good visits during this Santa experience, but it was too much for my avoider. He couldn’t handle it.
So this year with seemingly all solutions exhausted, I decided to change the game. I knew that my child couldn’t be the only one like this. I knew that there were other families like mine who were looking for something, some perfect holiday experience for their children. Something to give our families a sense of normalcy, of doing what every other family does at the holidays – seeing Santa.
I did the only thing I could think to do; I set out to create a Santa experience for my child. A Santa experience that could take place in a sensory-rich environment and a place where he felt comfortable. A Santa experience in which he would be one of the only children there. A Santa experience that is very calm and not overwhelming for my boy. You know that saying, “if you want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself”? Well, that is where I am. If I want a holiday experience for my boy, I need to roll up my sleeves and make it happen.
I got to talking about it. Jack’s OT offered space in her clinic. I had leads on photographers who might be willing to donate time to take a picture or two. Jack’s OT even had the brilliant idea that if we could find a Santa to donate a little bit of time to our kids, perhaps we could ask families to donate a toy, or a grocery store gift card, or something so that we could make the holidays a little brighter for someone else. I just needed to make it happen.
I started by asking around, asking friends for leads on Santas. After all, it’s not like there is a Santa in every neighborhood. I can’t just walk up to someone who resembles Santa and say, “You have a bearded face and a round belly that shakes when you laugh like a bowl full of jelly. Would you be our Santa Claus?”
I got a few names and started calling around. This is where I hit a roadblock. Not only did every Santa I spoke to say no to donating their time – one actually said “No, I’m not interested. I’m just in this to make money.” – but they weren’t interested in being our Santa at all. They all offered that I could bring my son or any of his special needs friends to their location, but that they wouldn’t come out to a location where my child – where other children like him – feel safe, even being paid. I was told that I would have had to reserve their time in September or October in order to do that, and the irony that these phone calls occurred in early October wasn’t lost on me. In fact, one Santa told me, “I see kids with autism, and these kids have a LOT of problems, but they do fine coming to me.”
Yeah, well, that’s not my kid. Each of our kids is different, and while some children could do a certain experience, others need something else altogether. I also had an issue with saying that those sweet children had “a LOT of problems”. Our kids have differences and challenges, but I hesitate to say that my child has problems. The problem is a world that expects him to fit into a one-size-fits-all mold. I thanked the Santas for their time and vowed to never give them my business – ever.
Here’s the thing – my boy doesn’t know who Santa is. He doesn’t know what Christmas is. He’s never been excited about Christmas morning, he’s never told me what he wants for Christmas, and he’s never opened one of his Christmas presents (we’ve done it for him – tactile issues).
So you might be asking why this means so much to me. In a way, it’s become a crusade. There is an under served population of families who just wants an element of a “typical” holiday while taking their children’s needs into account. It’s for families who just want their child to be included in a highlight of the season. It’s also parents like me who just want that holiday picture of their baby so that they feel like their child got to do something that so many children get to do and enjoy each December. This isn’t just about my boy anymore. It’s about every other family who has looked longingly at a Christmas card with the requisite picture of the kids and Santa Claus and thought, I wish that we could have done that.
I wish I could say that the world has a heart. I wish I could say that there are people who open their hearts more freely, but I can’t.
I am not giving up, though. I’m going to keep looking for that perfect Santa, for the one who has an open mind and an open heart. I may be naive, but I truly believe he’s out there, because our children deserve a Santa who understands that all children are unique and that some need a little extra care than others. I’ll keep working until I make it happen. It may not be this year, but eventually I’ll put something together for my boy and others like him who need a little something different.
Please share – how do you help your child have a positive experience with Santa?