Giving kids with sensory issues (and their parents) reason to celebrate

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Jacob, the author’s son, poses for the camera during a visit to the playground. Jacob has sensory issues, so too much sound and light can be overwhelming.

It can be hard for children affected by autism to enjoy holiday celebrations.

Many autistic children, like my son Jacob, have sensory issues. For Jacob, who is in kindergarten, crowds and loud music can trigger “sensory overload” — and a meltdown. Even a short trip to the supermarket can be overwhelming.

But with a little accommodation, kids with autism can enjoy special gatherings.

A good example of this is a program called “Sensitive Santa.”

As we all know, Christmas is a time for gifts, family, friends and of course, good old Saint Nick. Children wait all year for a chance to visit with Santa Claus, boast about their good behavior and share their Christmas wishes.

Meeting the big guy can be hectic for any child — and also for any parent. The large crowds, long wait times, and blaring Christmas music can all add up to a Santa Claus visit gone bad.

But sitting down with Santa Claus can be especially chaotic for kids with autism, especially during the height of the shopping season.

Luckily, in 2011, I discovered a program called “Sensitive Santa” and my son has been visiting every Christmas since.

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Jacob sits with “Sensitive Santa,” who has been trained to work with kids with sensory issues. The Sensitive Santa is growing in popularity nationally.

“Sensitive Santa” is trained to interact with kids who have sensory issues, who meet the big guy himself in a calm environment with reduced lighting and sound.

The program is growing in popularity across the country as autism awareness has been increasing. In Hawaii, the Sensitive Santa program is offered through Pearlridge Center, Pali Momi Medical Center, the Autism Society of Hawaii, and Expressions Portrait Design.

Every year, Jacob gets an invitation to meet this special Santa Clause. This past Christmas, the event was held in the early evening at the former Stepping Stones Academy at Pearlridge Center.

At the event in 2013, Jacob acknowledged Santa from afar and smiled at him, but did not want to go anywhere near him. Jacob was nonverbal at that time and did not quite understand the concept of Christmas yet. About 15 minutes after we’d arrived, we finally managed to get close enough to capture a cute picture — with Santa Clause behind us. Santa was so patient and kind. We left with a big bag of goodies, which Jacob absolutely loved.

This past Christmas, Jacob was able to show off the progress he’s made over the course of the year. When we arrived, we were greeted warmly with hugs and refreshments and then guided to a table where we waited for Jacob’s scheduled time to visit Santa Claus. I noticed that there were double the amount of children and families there compared to the year before.

When Santa called Jacob’s name, his eyes lit up, looked up at me and said, “That’s Santa Claus.”

Trying my best to hold back tears, I slowly walked Jacob towards Santa. Jacob didn’t hesitate to sit next to Santa, look up at him and smile.

JanelleJanelle Hirata was born and raised in Kahuku. Growing up, her family owned a farm and her upbringing made her somewhat of an outdoor adventurer. She enjoys living a healthy, active lifestyle. Being a single mother, Janelle also finds support in her family and friends. She uses this quote from Buddha to to remind herself that there is always time to do what makes you feel good: “You, yourself, as much as anyone else in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

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