Sensory-Friendly Santa 

Ever noticed that some children struggle when visiting Santa? You might witness both tears and terror in children. If you are responsible for organizing a Santa Claus event, there is a solution to make Santa welcoming to more children and enjoyed by more children. For many children, visiting Santa contributes to sensory overload. In particular, children with sensory disorders or autism have difficulty when it is busy, noisy, and bright. Be inspired to create a Sensitive Santa and sensory-friendly Santa Claus Parade to be more accessible and inclusive.  

Trisha Hamilton contributed to this blog post. Hamilton is a mother of a child on the autism spectrum who also has sensory processing disorder. Hamilton also works in digital marketing.  

Why sensitive Santa?

Do you wonder why parents search for and choose a Sensitive Santa Event for their child? For instance, do you enjoy looking back at yearly family photos of your child sitting on Santa’s lap? It may surprise you to learn that for many children, having their photo taken with Santa Claus is a challenging and stressful experience. Sensitive Santa to the rescue!  

It is important to understand that the excitement of meeting Santa Claus can be an overwhelming experience for children. For some parents, this may sound very familiar. Unfortunately, many parents simply cannot bring their child to visit a regular Santa Claus event. This is often due to the loud noises, bright lights, big crowds, waiting in long lines, and even the smells. Moreover, it is upsetting for families to miss out on creating such a common and cherished Christmas memory.  

Therefore, it is important to be a sensory-friendly supporter. Include more children at Christmas. Regardless, if you are planning to organize a Santa Claus event at a local mall, for your place of worship, a community facility or even at your office Christmas party, a Sensitive Santa Claus event is the answer.  

Who Does Sensitive Santa Help? 

Did you know that about 1/3 of the population is more likely to experience sensory sensitivity?  

Sensory sensitivity occurs when children or adults have a heightened sensitivity to any one of their senses. For example, a child or adult may be excessively bothered by noise, crowds, bright and flashing lights or strong scents. Did you know you have at least eight senses and not just five? Up to 33% of the population has a disability which makes a person more likely to experience sensory sensitivity or sensory overload. 

What is silent Santa? 

Silent Santa is another name for Sensitive Santa or Sensory Friendly Santa. Choose the title for your Santa event that fits with your community and what you offer.  

What makes Santa Claus parades sensory-rich? 

When you think about parades, you often imagine loud music as well as bright and flashing lights. In addition, there are often large crowds of people lining the route. Hamilton explained that all of these factors are overwhelming. For instance, a busy, noisy, bright event contributes to sensory overload in her child.  

Do you relate? For instance, are you trying to avoid a meltdown from your child? For children with sensory differences, parades are stressful and anxiety-inducing because they are sensory-rich.  

“It’s all in celebration, but for children with sensory sensitivities, the heightened excitement can be disturbing for them”

Trish Hamilton, mother of a child with autism and a sensory processing disorder. 

The importance of offering sensory-sensitive events 

If you expect that 1/3 of the children at your Santa Claus event are likely to experience sensory sensitivity or sensory overload, then help them to enjoy it! Recognize that visiting Santa and Christmas events are often sensory-rich. Create a sensory-friendly event and include more children, make families comfortable and help create magical memories and capture special moments for their family this holiday season.  

Young person visiting Santa

Examples of sensory-friendly changes to make 

Look at photos from past visits to Santa Claus 

The first suggestion is to look at photos and videos you might have from previous Santa visits prior to attending the event. Reminisce about the visit together with your child. Ask your child questions about what they remember. Also, ask questions about what your child liked. Furthermore, ask questions about what your child did not like. You can then plan how to address those dislikes together.  

Help your child practice visiting Santa Claus 

Help your child prepare for visiting Santa by playing or even role-playing. Children learn through play. Moreover, children understand and practice new experiences through play. Play is a powerful tool to help your child adjust and prepare for new or unfamiliar experiences. For instance, your child can practice lining up to see Santa. Include your child’s toys to add some depth to the long line. Practice what your child will say to Santa. Let your child hear some of the things Santa might say to your child. Give your child the opportunity to ask questions and practice phrases through play. 

Schedule appointment times to visit Santa 

One of the most stressful factors of visiting Santa Claus is the long lines of families. For many children, waiting and standing near strangers is overwhelming. To help create an appointment schedule and set specific times. For instance, have families pre-register. Ultimately, this simple change reduces wait times. Additionally, consider booking at least 10 minutes of time per child. Finally, if you have a waiting area, instead of a waiting line up, create a waiting space. For example, have tables and chairs, and offer some Christmas crafts, like colouring, to help entertain children. Call names instead of waiting in line. 

Shopping malls or retailers: schedule sensory-friendly hours 

Another suggestion to help create a sensory-friendly Santa Claus visit is to offer the event during sensory-friendly hours. Sensory-friendly hours are dedicated periods of time when special changes are made. For example, bright, flashing lights are dimmed, loud equipment is turned off, and background music is eliminated. Check this out, “An Initiative to Make Shopping Hassle Free for Individuals with ASD Steps Towards Sustainable Development” by De et al., (2021) included an accessible review of a sensory-friendly mall in the United Kingdom for inspiration to make these shopping centres more inclusive 1. Therefore, if you offer your Santa event during sensory-friendly hours and create a comfortable environment for sensory-sensitive children.

Train staff to be sensory-friendly 

An important part of a Sensitive Santa event that makes it successful for children is the interaction with staff, volunteers, and employees alike. Interacting with strangers is a challenge for children. Additionally, a child being told to sit on Santa’s lap can feel overwhelming. Seek out additional training for staff about different disabilities. Encourage staff to offer alternatives to sitting on Santa’s lap. Create a comfortable and enjoyable experience for the child.  

Change your expectations 

Changing your expectations as a recommendation might seem hard, but it is the most important. It is critical to acknowledge that your child may not want to sit on Santa’s lap for a photo. Your child may not even want to visit Santa at all. So, change your expectations. Maybe your child will wave to Santa. Santa will assuredly wave back! That can be a delightful moment to capture. On the other hand, maybe you capture a great photo of Santa passing your child a candy cane. Regardless of how your child interacts with Santa, it is important to recognize and respect your child’s comfort.  

Bring along sensory tools 

Bring along things that help your child! For instance, bring sensory tools. Use noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, fidgets or any other toy or sensory tool that helps your child feel calm.  

Plan bio breaks 

Ensure your child goes to the toilet before the event. Plan bio breaks in advance. Managing the urge to go to the toilet can contribute to sensory overload.  

Avoid hunger and thirst 

Hunger and thirst also contribute to sensory overload. Most importantly, hungry and thirsty children are less able to manage a sensory-rich experience. Therefore, bring along a snack and water.  

Read, watch, and listen to “A Visiting Santa Story” 

At Sensory Friendly Solutions, we created a free resource, a sensory-friendly story that will help prepare your child for visiting Santa. It introduces the sensory experience and some of the social expectations in a fun way.  

Add a quiet zone in Santa Parade 

Lastly, one of the easiest steps to take for a sensory-friendly Santa Claus parade is adding a quiet zone. For instance, the image below was taken by Sensory Friendly Solutions Founder and CEO at her local Santa Claus Parade. It is an example of a quiet zone sign.

Parade quiet zone sign
KV Santa Claus Parade Quiet Zone Sign, Quispamsis, New Brunswick. Photo credit: Christel Seeberger

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  1. De, M., Basu, I., & Saraiwala, V. (2021). An Initiative to Make Shopping Hassle Free for Individuals with Asd Steps Towards Sustainable Development | Asia-Pacific Journal of Management and Technology (AJMT).
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