Special Holiday Event for Families of Children with Autism
It is all about perspective. We view our environment and experiences through a custom lens, one that has been formed throughout our lives and is constantly evolving. This “lens” is also affected by our natural biology. The brain has an amazing ability to take in stimuli from the environment around us, determine what it is and how it affects us, and make an appropriate response accordingly. We receive and process information through our senses of vision, hearing, taste, touch, proprioception, and movement.
What happens if our brain does not receive and process sensory information like the majority of other people do? For example, what happens when someone is extremely sensitive to stimuli? Or when our brain requires quite a bit of stimulus to even register? The answer is quite simple: it can be difficult to participate in the daily and seasonal experiences that are, although we may not recognize it, dripping with sensory input.
For example, let us go back in time to our childhood, when we were waiting in line to visit Santa at the mall for the annual Christmas photo and chance to share the top contenders of our Christmas lists. We remember the cheerful and bright Christmas decorations, hung from every banister, window front, artificial Christmas tree, and open wall space. We can hear the Christmas tunes emanating from each storefront we pass by. We can literally feel our anticipation of finally getting to the front of the line. It didn’t matter how long it took, when it was our turn to hop up on jolly Santa’s lap, we couldn’t get there any faster as we grinned from ear to ear, all while a photographer snapped photo after photo of this joyous moment.
Many children find this experience to be overwhelming, over-stimulating, and utterly abrasive. As of 2014, one in sixty eight children have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a disorder characterized by difficulty with communication and socialization (“Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder”, 2014). Seventy percent of these children experience difficulty with sensory processing (Adamson, O’Hare, & Graham, 2006). With the prevalence of autism quickly increasing, the number of children who struggle to process sensory information also grows. These children deserve the opportunity to enjoy precious life moments “on their own terms” and in ways that are sensory-friendly.
One experience that was created to be sensory-friendly is an event called “Sensitive Santa”. It is for families of children with Autism and was hosted locally last year on December 10th and 12th at Jim Beech Recreation Center in Ocoee. The event was extremely successful and a time of joy and bonding for the families that attended.
Each family had the chance to sign up for a private session with Santa upon arrival. It was designed to eliminate long lines and avoid overwhelming crowds to ensure an evening of heartfelt, stress free fun.
The environment was also modified to cater to the sensory needs of the children attending. The fluorescent lights were turned off and replaced with two lamps that provided a subtle and non-intrusive glow in the room. The bright colors on the walls were covered with soft and fluffy batting and white Christmas lights hung behind it. Instead of adopting a mall’s setup, which only leaves room for a child to sit on Santa’s lap, we brought in a couch, a chair, and a therapy ball that the child could sit on. There was a photographer present, but he was gentle and encouraging and did not use a flash with his camera. Parents were contacted to determine if their child would prefer having Christmas music or silence in the room. Each parent filled out a registration form prior to the event that provided helpful information for the child’s special interaction with Santa. Before each family entered the room for their appointment with Santa, Santa was briefed on the child’s name, age, and special interests. Each family had ten minutes to spend alone with Santa.
This event was put on by Tessa Lee, a student in the Master’s of Occupational Therapy Program at Adventist University of Health Sciences. The Sensitive Santa event is part of her Capstone project for the program.
This year’s Sensitive Santa event information:
Adamson, A., O’Hare, A., & Graham, C. (2006). Impairments in sensory modulation in children with autism spectrum disorder. The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69(8), 357-364. Retrieved from http://www.ingentaconnect.com
Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years- autism and developmental disabilities monitoring network, 11 sites, United States, 2010. (2014). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss6302.pdf