Sensory-sensitive Santa shares joy with kids

Santa reads a letter from a young boy at a sensory friendly Milk and Cookies with Santa event at the Canyon Country Community Center Monday night. Cory Rubin/The Signal

SCV Families gathered Monday at the Canyon Country Community Center for the inaugural Sensory-Friendly Milk and Cookies with Santa event.

“The event held was planned specifically for special needs children,” said Julie Calderon, community services supervisor of the Canyon Country Community Center.

“Based on what we’ve heard, there’s a need for sensory-sensitive environments” because a lot of children with special needs have conditions that prevent them from enjoying the stereotypical holiday-themed events, which typically feature bright flashing lights, loud holiday tunes and other festive traditions that might overload somebody with special needs, Calderon said. “We thought it’d be a great idea to hold an event that’d allow (the children) to enjoy their holidays in a quiet, softly lit environment.”

Santa Claus was on hand during the event to talk with kids in a low voice as he attempted to connect with them at their level — “whatever that may be,” Calderon said. “Different kids have different capacities, so it was important that Santa addressed each child individually.”

“The city has began to notice there are more kids with special needs participating in our programs and we want to make sure we offer something for everyone,” Calderon said, adding there certainly was.

“It was all about engaging the senses,” whether that be through sound, touch, sight or smell, the supervisor said. “We dimmed the lights to make sure the environment was quiet and silenced the background music so we didn’t overwhelm some members of the group.”

Students also had the option to participate in a variety of other sensory-sensitive activities, including a quiet zone, which students could use to destress. They also possessed the ability to use noise cancelling headphones, which some students took advantage of, Calderon said.

One activity table featured an ink blotter like the one used in bingo games, but children were instructed to stamp the ink blot on a paper, which simulated painting, Calderon said. “Some kids do well with the sound or feeling the pound of the stamp hitting the table.”

Other activities were more textile- or texture-based, Calderon said, and the visit with Santa was always mellow.

“We were asking families if we should take lights off of the tree every time a new one came up,” and the city texted parents ahead of time to allow the group some time to collect their kids, according to the supervisor. “This helped tremendously because sometimes it can take awhile to gather a child and then calmly bring them to the front of the room.”

Calderon attributed the success of the event to the number of partners who were able to provide assistance.

“The event was very organic,” she said. “We all just wanted to offer something for our families.”

The special needs community is one that doesn’t have a lot offered to them, Calderon said, which is something she has discovered after speaking with participants of the various programs offered by the city.

It’s too soon to tell if the community center will host another one next year Calderon said, mentioning that she wants to put out a survey to gauge public feedback.  

“I can say that pretty much every family walked out saying, ‘This is fun,’” Calderon said. “This is the first event we’ve done of this kind during the holiday. I saw a lot of new faces who I don’t usually see and they just loved it. They were so appreciative and so patient and so grateful for us putting it on.”

Calderon said the center hosts family events on a monthly basis, so she believes a similar event could be added to the program in the future.

“Both community centers in the city have awesome programming for all children of all abilities,” Calderon said before encouraging residents to join the center’s year-round programs or use the winter, summer or afterschool services. “We an can be inclusive community for all families in Santa Clarita.”

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