Yarra Plenty Regional Library's Sensitive Santa program provides a unique opportunity for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their siblings to meet Santa in a quiet, safe environment, and enjoy the magic of Christmas together!
The Sensitive Santa Project first began when staff at Yarra Plenty Regional Library identified that children with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and their families often missed out on a visit to Santa and the accompanying Santa photo. Taking trips to the local shopping centres at Christmas time is a common activity for most families, but often families who have children with ASD are confronted by such a visit. With a myriad of “triggers” that cause distress for the child, including long wait lines, noisy environments, bright lights, loud music, and lots of unfamiliar faces. The opportunity to capture a special family memory is often too challenging for these families and therefore not even attempted, or abandoned after bad experiences.
Sensitive Santa provides an opportunity for an important, valued and unique family experience. It also aims to achieve increased community awareness around existing barriers for children with neuro-diverse disabilities whilst promoting a creative and positive contribution towards broader community inclusion for all.
Sensitive Santa Project initially started in the USA at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania as a special event for children with Autism, ADHD, ADD, and various other sensory challenges. It is a program that has since been adopted worldwide by community organisations, not-for-profit organisations and commercial businesses, such as local shopping centres.
Here in Melbourne, three metro access officers from the city councils of Banyule, Nillumbik and Whittlesea, partnered with Yarra Plenty Regional Library to deliver a pilot of the Sensitive Santa Project. They created and delivered three events in community rooms at Yarra Plenty Regional Library branches.
Libraries are a naturally quieter and sensory stable space, with books and activities that children with ASD often love. Parents have expressed they feel more comfortable in a library setting in comparison to the special sessions run at shopping centres. They enjoyed being in a “non-retail”, “safe” and “inclusive” environment. The families also reported developing a relationship with the library after these Sensitive Santa visits and expressed that now they felt comfortable enough to attend other events that the library had to offer.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects the brain’s growth and development. It is a lifelong condition, with symptoms typically appearing in early childhood.
Autism can cause individuals challenges in understanding how to relate to other people and to their environment. There is no physical marker for autism, so individuals on the autism spectrum look no different to anyone else. Parents sometimes report that others might think that their children are badly behaved and that they lack parenting skills, based on different behaviours, however, this can be very unhelpful for a family.
Many on the autism spectrum may struggle with social situations and ‘small talk’, thus appearing rude or saying things that others would not say. However, as social interaction is fluid and constantly changing, people on the autism spectrum may have challenges in keeping up with the verbal and non-verbal messages that are begin communicated.
Sensitive Santa program
Sensitive Santa is run in the Mill Park Library Maker Space. It is usually on the last weekend of November. In past years we have had a second site at Diamond Valley Library, Watsonia Library and Lalor Library. In 2021, Mill Park Library hosted 22 families seeing Sensitive Santa.
Sessions are 20 minutes and are held in a private space without other library patrons observing the session. The only people in the room are the family, Santa, the photographer and a YPRL staff helper. The children are free to move around as much as they wish and can take however long they need to feel comfortable with Santa. Photographers do not direct children to pose or sit on Santa’s lap. Santa will move to them, get down on the floor or even just stay in the background. All of this is captured by the photographers in casual photographs. To help children feel more at ease with Santa, information is gathered from parents prior to the session as to what their children like. Interests talked about can include their favourite footy team, favourite tv shows, toys to play with, books and movies and more select interests such as garbage trucks, traffic lights, types of air fresheners and more. Armed with this information Santa is able to start conversations with children who may find these sorts of discussions difficult. Some children who attend are non-verbal and having Santa chat with them about things they love, help create the magic of Christmas. Along with knowing what the children like, Santa and helpers also know what a trigger for the child may be. This can include loud noises, smells, and flash photography. Parents will sometimes have special requests of topics to be avoided such as school, friendships, and one request was for Santa not to compliment the child as that would make them anxious.
Siblings of children with special needs often miss out on what their friends get to experience. Thanks to the ‘cheat sheet’ Santa knows as much about them as he does their sibling. He is able to chat with them and make them feel very special too.
Parents supply a wrapped Christmas present which is snuck into Santa’s sack for him to give to the children. This way it is something the child is really wanting, just adding to the magic. After the session a show bag with Christmas themed literacy activities is provided along with a wrapped book chosen by staff based on the information provided. Our photographers download all the photos taken and give the families a USB with up to and sometimes in excess of 100 photos.
For many families attending Sensitive Santa is the only way they would be able to have the Santa meeting which many of us take for granted. Siblings who often miss out on what their peers are able to have the same experience their friends are having. Families have reported that the Sensitive Santa photos are the only time they can get a family photo.
Magic occurs in the room with Santa, we have witnessed children talk for the first time, play and interact with their sibling, children smile for the first time in a photograph and calmly react to Santa for the first time.
The Sensitive Santa program at Mill Park has been featured on both the Nine News and SBS. You can also find a Sensitive Santa 2015 Highlights video on YouTube.
“My eldest is 12 and he looks forward to this every year! My other boys had a great time and were able to be themselves without judgement”
“My daughter is now 16 and loves going to see Santa in this quiet private environment. We wouldn’t go to see a regular Santa because of these issues”
“Thank you for a sensational experience. This experience is amazing, not only for [my] son on the spectrum, but also for his sister who misses out on lots of opportunities”
“This is such an important program not only for the child with autism but for the whole family to experience something magical together where they would normally miss out. Was lovely to watch our kids in a calm environment and enjoy the experience”
“This program is SO important! Without it, there is NO WAY we would be able to enjoy this wonderful experience. There’s no way we could go to a shopping centre or public place to experience this. My boys needed a period of transition, where they could be themselves. My almost 4 year old ran around for a few minutes until he settled and we got some beautiful photos of the three boys together! This is a very difficult task! Also, we could experience this special event like other families without kids with special needs and not have the judgemental looks”
“Seeing Santa has never been easy for our daughter. We have taken her in the past to Myer but by the time we saw Santa she was distressed. It meant the world to her to know that Santa was making a special visit to a library just for ASD kids like her. It made her feel like Santa knew and understood how hard it was for her to see him at the shops”