‘Tis the season. Social media feeds flooded with pictures of children sitting perfectly posed on Santa’s lap, beaming at the camera with not a hair out of place. On occasion, you may have an unhappy baby or a terrified toddler. The adorable kiddo who’s been taught the concept of “stranger danger” since they could walk and is now being thrust into the arms of a big, burly, bearded man. They look to their parents with panic and confusion on their faces. We can’t help but smile. It’s all endearing. We remember the joy and wonder of Christmas at that age and even if the picture isn’t perfect, there’s always next year.
That’s not the case in our house. We won’t get a Christmas card worthy photo with Santa or the option to buy a moderately overpriced package, and truth be told, in the beginning, that was tough. Not the missing photo, but the missed experience. We wanted to see our daughter enjoy this ritualistic holiday celebration. It was what we did as kids growing up and we loved it. We wanted her to love it too. But she didn’t and it was of no fault of her own.
Our beautiful, spunky, humorous daughter is autistic, so long lines, crowded spaces and loud, excited kiddos were a nightmare for her. She wouldn’t hesitate to let us know either. Screaming, crying, throwing herself on the floor. It only took one year of that to realize it wasn’t an experience we wanted to repeat. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t partly because of the judgmental stares and "whispered" comments, but mostly it was because we didn’t want to see her in distress. Seeing Santa was supposed to bring her joy, and when the standard route didn’t work, we were determined to find one that would for her.
As autism and inclusion became a more open topic of discussion, organizations and businesses recognized the need for children on the spectrum to feel included in holiday events. In line with this, the Autism Society in our state held a Sensory Santa event. Here they had games, snacks and sensory rooms to occupy the kids when Santa was busy. They made sure to hire a Santa who was patient and understanding, and no other parents gave you sideways glances if your child had a meltdown. Instead, it was words of encouragement and looks of compassion. Our daughter still wasn’t completely sold on Santa, (Again, big, burly, bearded guy. Can you blame her?) so we decided to create the experience entirely on her terms.
My aunt and uncle dress up yearly as Santa and Mrs. Claus. I may be biased, but they are absolutely the most authentic Claus’ I’ve ever seen. A few years ago, we asked if they would stop by my parents' house when making their rounds, and they were happy to oblige. When they walked through the door, a wide smile spread across my daughter’s face. Then she immediately turned and ran back to the couch to continue eating her crackers and watching Disney clips on YouTube.
They entered the living room, greeting her warmly, but sitting down far enough away from her that she didn’t feel her space had been invaded. She watched them interact with us and her little brother and after a few minutes, she ventured over to get a closer look. She reached out to touch Santa’s coat and he handed her the sleigh bells which she gave a good shake as she flapped her arms in excitement. This was Santa on her terms and she loved it. She ran back to the safety of her couch and I couldn’t hold back my tears. She’s dealt with extraordinary struggles in her short life, especially being non-verbal, yet she perseveres. She may have bad days, but she gets up the next day and starts the slate clean, ready to again tackle whatever challenges life throws at her. She’s one of the strongest people I know and she absolutely deserved this peaceful holiday experience.
Her moods and what she’s interested in doing change by the minute, so this may not always work for her. If at some point it doesn’t, we’ll find another holiday tradition she can enjoy. I look at it as an adventure. A rollercoaster of one some days, but it’s made me a better person. More tolerant, more understanding, more compassionate, and that’s really what this time of year is all about. I know that someday, my aunt and uncle will no longer dress as Santa and Mrs. Claus.
When that day comes, I’ve already got a red, fluffy suit waiting in my closet.