I will never take Santa Claus for granted again! Most of us grew up with Santa Claus as a beloved Christmas icon. Maybe you have one or two special Santa memories that you cherish. Did you take your kids to visit Santa and then tuck the photo away as a life-long Christmas treasure? I sure did! I have always taken it all for granted. I never realized how hard it is for parents of a special needs child to give their kids a Santa moment.
At the July 2009, Autism Society of America conference, I met Santa John of Santa America whose mission is to bring “Unconditional Love, Hope and Joy wrapped in a warm Santa hug to special needs children and their families 365 days a year!” (see Compassionate Santa Services.) Santa America and the Autism Society of America announced a “gentle alliance” that will help children affected by autism and their families have a rewarding experience with Santa for the holiday season. “Autism is a complex neurodevelopment disability that typically appears in the first two years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.”
Santa John told me, “Children dealing with Autism cannot tolerate the noise, crowds, and the wait involved in a Santa visit. Trying to take kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to see Santa at the mall is total sensory overload. As the child and his parent struggle to deal with the situation some other well-meaning adult scowl and say sarcastically, ‘Can’t you control your child?’ The true answer is no! They really can not control their ASD child. Even if parents try their best to give their child what every other normal family enjoys as an American Christmas Tradition, the parents and the child are often humiliated and rejected.”
Santa-America tenderly serves three groups of very special children:
Children in hospice or children with parents or grandparents in hospice; and
Children with chronic pediatric conditions or in palliative care; and
Children suffering post traumatic stress due to abuse, violence, or other trauma.
I asked how Santa ‘knows all’ when dealing with such challenging situations. Santa John warmly shared that every Santa America Santa is given very careful training. He learns how to:
Identify a child on the autism spectrum
Learn to ‘tone it down’ to avoid causing a negative response
Learn to use story-telling cards and relaxing techniques
Last Christmas, Santa John and the Kansas City-Autism Society Heartland Chapter gave over 50 families an opportunity to meet Santa and have photos taken with him. Santa John told me that, “visits were scheduled with 3-4 families every 30 minutes. Each family met with Santa in a private room next to a cozy fireplace. Santa had his Book of Good Boys and Girls with a page for each child listing their birthday, friends, teachers, and what they wanted for Christmas. Most importantly, the families knew that everyone there would be accepting of any behavioral differences their child might have.”
As I listened to this kind and caring man share his compassion for these special kids, I realized that he is a Santa who is a model of the true meaning of Christmas. Santa John says that what Santa America needs most is for us all to donate to help Santas across our nation deliver gifts of Love, Hope, and Joy. Click here to donate.
Santa John’s amazing personal story will be the subject of next week’s blog.