Sensitive Santa takes a softer approach to kids with special needs

WATCH ABOVE: Su-Ling Goh looks at how a more subdued Santa Claus is helping special needs children get the most out of the holiday season.

EDMONTON – A company that provides therapies for kids with special needs is also offering a much-needed holiday service: Sensitive Santa.

For many families, heading to the mall for a holiday photo with St. Nick is an annual ritual. But for children with special needs, the experience can be a sensory overload: crowds, music, lights, and camera flashes… not to mention sitting in a stranger’s lap.

“She’s screaming and she’s flailing and she just doesn’t want to be there,” said Michael Venables.

Venables’ daughter, three-year-old Aubrey, has developmental delays and sensory issues. She gets overstimulated easily and had a meltdown the first time she met Santa in the mall. But she remains calm with Kids Uncomplicated‘s Sensitive Santa.

“We discovered that Santa knows how to work with and communicate with non-verbal kids, and kids that need maybe a softer approach,” said Kids Uncomplicated CEO Robyn Henderson.

Sensitive Santa enters the room slowly and silently. There is no jolly, ‘ho ho ho.’ He brings a book to read to Aubrey, who eventually feels comfortable enough to climb into his lap.

Henderson explains clients can book an appointment to spend as much time as they need with Santa. It took one boy with severe anxiety two hours to approach him.

“Santa had to pretend that he was sleeping,” laughed Henderson,”but that child is doing amazing now. He’s able to go to his community Santa, he writes letters to Santa.”

“It really did springboard (the family) into a different experience for Christmas.”

Kids Uncomplicated Family Liaison Natalie Soetaert says the busy Christmas season can be extremely hard on kids with special needs like autism, because routines tend to go out the window. She offers a few tips to get families through the holidays:

  1. Try to maintain routines as much as possible;
  2. When routines change, tell your child exactly what will happen;
  3. If you’re visiting someone’s house, ask them to reserve a quiet room for your child, in case they need a place to calm down;
  4. Involve your child in holiday decorating.

“If they can be part of the set-up and the take-down, they know things are just going to change for a little while,” said Soetaert.

READ MORE: Sensitive Santa launches in Saskatoon

The company started offering Sensitive Santa for clients three years ago. The first year, three families showed up. This year, there were 36. The CEO feels all malls should offer the service, with after-hours appointments. Venables agrees. His family was able to get their first-ever photo with Santa.

“There was no meltdown, (Aubrey) wasn’t overly excited, she enjoyed herself,” smiled the proud father.

“This is so wonderful.”

© 2015 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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