So, you’ve got a child on the Autism Spectrum and want the whole Christmas-time experience but standing in line with dozens of screaming kids in a crowded space isn’t going to happen.

Does this mean you can’t have that supremely sweet Santa pic? Of course not. Parents with children who have special needs can take on the traditional Father Christmas photo with a sensory-friendly version of the jolly old red-suited Santa.

Roughly 1 in 100 children (or 230,000 Australians) have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, according to Aspect (Autism Spectrum Australia).

The sensitivity to sensory experiences and social skill challenges that autistic children face can make something as simple as a visit with Santa almost unmanageable. That’s where the Sensitive Santa steps in.

The Sensitive Santa program provides children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) a chance to sit down with Mr. Claus in a completely unthreatening way. Instead of blaring music, bright lights and a shrieking mass of children, families book individual appointments. The low-stress setting is a quiet and calming, and not at all crazy, Christmas scene. The program runs from mid-November through mid-December at Charlestown Square and Rouse Hill Town Centre. Families each get one complimentary photo, but it is possible to purchase a larger package for a fee.

How else does the Sensitive Santa differ from other shopping centre Santas? Aspect notes that “appropriate adjustments” are made ahead of time. This cuts back on the child’s stress and helps to ensure the best environment possible. Santa (and of course, his helpers) are told ahead of time what to expect. This may include potential triggers that can turn what should be a purely enjoyable experience into a tricky situation. Keep in mind, this doesn’t necessarily mean the Santas (or the helpers) are counseling pros or special education expert. But, they do have.

Why is this (and other similar) program so important?

Sitting on Santa’ lap may seem silly. It’s something that little kids are often forced into by mum and dad. Parents dress up their little ones in red velvet and white wooly outfits, comb their hair and make them wait, wait, wait to sit on a stranger’s lap, smile and get a photo taken. Seems more than a little odd if you really get down to it – right? That said, the shopping centre Santa meet and greet is a childhood standard. It may only take minutes, but it leaves behind a lasting memory. Then there are the pictures. Raise your hand if your own mum and dad still have a few photos of you sitting with Santa? Having to miss out on this Christmas tradition doesn’t exactly help an already struggling child to feel included. Getting to spend time with Santa in a way that’s comfortable means participating in a way that’s safe and enjoyable for the child.

How can your child experience the Sensitive Santa?

If you’re ready to get your child back in front of the man in the jolly red suit, but can’t manage the regular route, getting to one of these sensory-sensitive events is a must-do. Remember, you must book your visit beforehand. To do this Aspect recommends contacting their organisation (for more information) or contacting one of the two host centres (Charlestown Square and Rouse Hill Town Centre) directly.

Amaze (Autism Victoria) runs Sensitive Santa programs in several Victoria locations. The locations may vary by year, but can include Chirnside Park, Stockland at the Pines, Highpoint, Mill Park Library, SPAN Community House and Northland. Like the Charlestown Square and Rouse Hill Town Centre locations, the Victoria events require pre-booking. Santa-child sessions are 15 minutes each.

Taking a child with ASD to the regular shopping centre Santa isn’t just challenging for the child in question. Mum and dad feel the pain too. No parent wants to put her child through an unnecessarily difficult ordeal just for a quick pic at Christmas-time.

The Sensitive Santa program may not solve all of the sensory issues that a child with autism has, but it does offer an opportunity that otherwise doesn’t exist.

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