Ah, that first visit to Santa. Remember how your little one cried and was scared, clinging to you? But you knew that this was temporary. Next year, he/she would be fine with the Santa visit, a rite of passage for most North American children today.
But what if your child is not like all the other children? What if your child has special needs, like autism, sensory processing disorder, learning disabilities, ADHD, or any other issues which make noise, heat and sitting still difficult to manage?
Well, that first visit experience may continue to repeat itself for years to come if as a parent you don't know how to prepare your child for seeing Santa. I have learned over the years with my son, that as soon as I have a toolbox of options available to me, we will have full or almost full success with any outing. What tools or tips did I find helpful for the Santa visit each year? I've tweaked some of them over the years as he's gotten older, but the majority have stayed the same and he's had success as a result.
Here are five tips I've used to have successful Santa visits with my special needs son:
1) Make sure he and you are well-rested
I can't stress enough how important it is to have a well-rested child go to see Santa. This way, whatever situation arises, he and you will at least have energy to tackle the problem.
2) Read a short story and show picture of Santa
This is important to explain the tradition of going to see Santa. Don't underestimate the explanation. Special needs kids are very intelligent, but may need additional social explanations as observing peer behavior in a social situation is not their strongest point.
3) Write your own social story about the steps of a Santa visit
You can also draw it out with stick figures or downloadable pictograms. The step-by-step process is invaluable to a child that responds well if things are broken down into chunks.
4) Pick a quiet time of day and week to go
I don't know about you, but unless I was feeling like some stress, I usually avoid the mall on Saturdays and Sundays with my son. A hot, busy, long line of screaming kids and their irate parents will not guarantee my son of having a successful Santa picture and experience. If your schedule allows it, a weekday before 4 or 5 p.m. will give a quicker, quieter experience. Even suppertime on a Monday or Tuesday can work if you feed your child earlier.
5) Have snacks, sensory tools handy if your child needs them
I also make sure I have my son's headphones, chewie, a stress ball and a favorite figurine for him to play with if he's scared or nervous. It also helps to have a healthy snack and water available to give before or after the picture.
These are not foolproof methods of ensuring 100 per cent success for your Santa visit. What it can do, though, is provide some guidance, some preparation and some hints to your child about what they can expect from the experience. Also remember, that you may have to repeat the steps over each year as they may forget what to expect and how they will react. This will change as they get older and tell you the steps, but I digress. Here's wishing all of you a happy Santa visit with you and yours!
MORE ON HUFFPOST: