Autism: Surviving a visit to Santa

Today was a day that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. We went to see Father Christmas…something I didn’t think would happen. The last time J saw Santa was when he was 1, and he cried his eyes out. When he was 2 he wouldn’t go anywhere near a grotto, when he was 3 he didn’t like Christmas decorations, music and the changes it brings.

This isn’t unusual for children with autism. Christmas can be a difficult time. It’s full of changes in environment, change in routines, more people are about, different clothes, new smells and foods etc. There’s uncertainty of what’s in the presents, will it be what they expect? The second 1st December hits there’s 25 days of all this craziness happening. Children may crave normality and reject Christmas. Others may tolerate it in small doses or on their terms.

Don’t get me wrong, Santa from a distance was fine. Waving as Father Christmas rode past our road on charity night, patting Santa models in the shops and telling me every time he’s on the TV. J joins in Christmas by wearing Christmas clothes, loving presents and this year he’s singing Jingle Bells on repeat. He likes Christmas and wants to be part of it…his way.

Letter from Santa

J likes post. He gets excited every time anything comes through the letter box. I often tell him the junk mail is for him…he has a collection of take away menus and shop flyers. So I ordered a letter from Santa Letter Direct (not an ad, just thought I’d share). It was personalised to include his friends names, the news about our baby and that J wants Star Wars toys for Christmas.

J was excited to see post with his name on. I read the letter to him and J said ‘wow’. With J, it can take time for him to talk about things. Once the letter was read he was done. By when Daddy came home he showed him, when Grandma came he gave it to her. He wanted to share it. He told me later ‘Santa is real’…pretty sure the Star Wars part was the deciding factor.

The letter set the scene. It showed J that Santa was a real person and that he knew who J is.

Booking the visit

I then asked J if he’d like to meet Santa to say thank you for the letter. At first he said ‘no, tomorrow’ (which basically means no). I showed him a photo of the grotto…I explained what would happen. He then said he would have a look.

I found a grotto that was local and in a place we had been many times. This meant the general surroundings would be familiar to J. He knows the car park, the shops, the layout. All that was different was Father Christmas hut.

I booked online. I wanted to make sure we weren’t stuck in a queue. Queuing when your child has sensory difficulties and social issues is not an happy occasion. It would have used up all of J’s energy and tolerance which would have ruined his chances of actually going in the grotto. I also booked a quiet time. Children would be in school and the morning rush finished. The whole place was quieter.

Preparing for the visit

I didn’t want to add to J’s anxiety. Sometimes over talking about things can make situations worse. It plays on children’s minds and makes them overthink. I told J the days routine in the morning. I repeated it once at Nursery. I then told him again in the car when I picked him up (we have a visual timetable that is a big help).

Those who are autistic often deal with new and different things better when prepared. It gives them a sense of control over the situation when they know the steps they’re taking.

When we got to the shopping centre we were 10 minutes early. I showed him where we’d be going but explained it wasn’t our turn. We went to have a look at the Pop figures in the shop (one of J’s favourite things to do in town) until it was our time. We arrived dead on our time slot and was greeted by the elves.

The visit

We had a little chat with the elves and they checked our booking ticket. They said they recognised J’s name from the nice list. They asked J if he wanted to go in. He looked through the curtain and saw sacks of presents. He ran over to them…sorry Santa!

I explained again the routine. We would talk to Santa, then get a present, then have a photo, then go. J was so excited and stimulated by the lights and ‘awe’ of the ‘real Santa’ that he was spinning in circles. He was entertaining everyone with his pretend fall downs. He named all the different Star Wars spaceships he wanted. Santa said he’d have a look at the North Pole to see which ones he had for J.

Santa and the elves tried to talk about J’s birthday and how he is now 4 but J was not ready for social interactions that weren’t on his terms (and not about Star Wars). He smiled and span again. The elves and Santa were very understanding and there was no pressure at all.

Santa showed J the magic key. This interested J as he is very logical. He wants to know how Santa will get the presents into the house. He had read a story about Santa going down the chimney and had realised we don’t have one. The magic key that opens all doors made sense to him so he was happy.

Santa then gave J the present. J loves presents but he never opens them right away. I’m not sure why. Maybe he doesn’t think about the step by step process straight away, he remembers the next step is to open it eventually. He said and signed thank you. They showed him the stools he could sit on for a photo. There was no pressure to get too close to Father Christmas. He sat next to him and they did a lovely thumbs up pose together.

We then said thank you again and good bye. The whole things was less than 10 minutes but that was amazing. It was worth every second of that time. J went with Grandma whilst I went to order the photo.

After effects

To celebrate we went to McD’s. It was quiet and J asked to open his present. I praised him for visiting Santa and being so good. He was pleased to find Santa had given him some ‘lego style’ bricks.

After a little while the effects of the day did show their head. No matter how quiet a time we choose there was still people, noise, lights, change in routine, the unknown element of meeting Santa etc. by the time we got to the car J had lost all ability to listen and his danger awareness was lost completely. It was a stressful walk to the car (the one day I thought we’d try without the buggy-his little bubble that a) keeps him safe, b) gives him somewhere to hide away from the world) and resulted in me with a large bite mark on my wrist.

Meltdown are often common reactions in Autism. Imagine a can of fizzy that’s been slowly shaken over the day. What happens when the day is over and you open the can? It explodes everywhere. It didn’t do it spontaneously or deliberately . It was a reaction to the events of the day. There’s better explanation here by Autism With Love…

I know it’s just the overload of excitement coming out, and by the time we came home he was calm again and went straight to play with his lego figures.

I’m so happy that we managed to achieve a wonderful visit to the Grotto today. Hopefully this positive experience will set him up for years of great Christmas adventures.

Have you had any experiences or suggestions for getting through Christmas? How does your child cope with it all? Let me know in the comments or come find us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter x

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