A year ago we attempted to visit Santa twice. It was an awful experience, not just for Maddy, but for us as well. It was too much… too much everything. Our first visit ended with a Santa who was quite unhappy with us, and a comment from a stranger who felt that our struggles were because, “That little girl is just begging for some love and that mother is denying it.” This woman at least had the respect to not say this in front of me, unfortunately, she didn’t know she was standing next to Eric.
I’ll spare you the details of the actual day, but we ended up with a photo of a screaming, terrified Maddy with a grouchy Santa. As a parent, it was a totally shameful experience that left me questioning my behaviour. Why was it that I wanted Maddy to see Santa so badly? Did I really not know it was going to be so difficult, or did I force us to go because it was something that I wanted and I didn’t care what Maddy needed?
I still look at the photo from that day with mixed emotions. On the one hand, what’s a Christmas album without the classic baby/toddler crying with Santa? On the other hand, I know that Maddy’s crying was much beyond the typical crying photo, and was related to a host of factors that don’t impact most kids.
I wanted Maddy to have the same experiences that other kids would have – but, the thing is, I wanted her to have the experience that I imagined, not the actual one we had. The Christmas tradition of visiting Santa is not really a magical experience if it is an anxiety-provoking, traumatizing event with a very grouchy Santa.
We were so fortunate this year to snag a spot with Sensitive Santa. The Kitchener CTV News talks about the event here. It was an overwhelmingly positive day. I can sum it up by saying that they do their very best to reduce sensory input (dimmed lights, no music, Santa doesn’t ring bells, etc.), they mail a social story in advance (Maddy requested we read it at least 15 times before our visit this morning – it helps manage anxiety and provides expectations of what will happen), there are no waiting times, an area with blocks and colouring for the kids to enjoy, and perhaps most importantly – the staff and Santa are skilled and patient.
It is an entirely child-led visit, allowing the child to interact with Santa in their own way. When Maddy was hesitant at first, they encouraged her to explore, she walked around touching all of props. They then introduced her to a stuffed Mickey Mouse, and asked her to help Mickey explore. When Maddy wanted to leave the space, they let her take Mickey and we walked around and watched another child visit with Santa. When Maddy wanted to try again, they patiently waited until she was ready to get close to Santa. Maddy explored her gift and looked up for a picture. Santa watched her cues very closely, and spoke to her in a way that wasn’t overwhelming – pausing to allow her time to process, and prompting when necessary. We had filled out an information card in advance, so Santa knew exactly what to talk to Maddy about! We finished our visit with a high-five, and Maddy said thank you and Merry Christmas to Santa.
What struck me most, was that every child’s visit with Santa was completely different. Instead of every child being forced to fit into a prescription visit, the visit moulds around the needs of each child. We give Sensitive Santa a big thumbs up and encourage anyone who thinks that it is an event that their child can benefit from to give it a try.