Children with Special Needs Meet Santa

Matthew is 3, soon to be 4, and a huge fan of Santa. When I saw him this weekend, he was thrilled to be sitting on Santa’s lap and could not stop smiling. He’s got one of those infectious little kid smiles that make people stop and say “Awwww” (myself included). Matthew has Spina Bifida (curvature of the spine) and one of the cutest, happiest smiles around. I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew when he came to meet Sensitive Santa. He wasn’t really interested in me though because, let’s face it, Santa is way more popular. Sensitive Santa is relatively new and was recently created to help kids with special needs, specifically kids who have sensory issues, have the chance to meet Santa. Sensitive Santas are popping up all over and this is the first time many families in Lodi have had a chance to meet him. Sensitive Santa gives families that have children with special needs an opportunity to meet Santa in a fun, low stress way. That’s why these four partners, Layin’ the Smackdown on Autism, The Village, Sanborn Chevrolet, and Eagle Construction, knew it was so important to bring this to Lodi families, like Matthew’s.

Kathy Piazza, Founder of The Village, had been thinking about bringing a Sensitive Santa to town for a while and was excited to be included in the festivities this year. “I’ve always wanted to do this. All of the years of going to see Santa with a disabled child, it’s exhausting,” she shared. “It’s nice to be someplace where you know you’re going to be welcome and people are going to understand your situation.” Kathy was invited to work with Andrew Rigopoulos, the Founder of Layin’ the Smackdown on Autism, and Kini Sanborn, President of Sanborn Chevrolet, to help bring a Sensitive Santa event to Lodi. All of these people have something in common: they all have a family member with special needs. “My children are a total inspiration,” shared Kini, the President of Sanborn Chevrolet. “We are proud to be a supportive part of the community having faced challenges ourselves. We’re really community focused and it’s been great partnering with Andrew [Laying the Smackdown on Autism]. This is the first year doing Sensitive Santa. Andrew approached me and I thought this would be a great thing to partner with Kathy on as well. And then Eagles Construction helped supporting the costs. We thought it was a fun way to give back during the holidays and also a really nice way to connect with the community.”

Sensitive Santa is specially trained to deal with kids with autism and special needs. Andrew Rigopoulos, founder of Layin’ the Smackdown on Autism, had been to a Sensitive Santa a couple of years ago and loved the concept. “I like putting smiles on kids faces. Especially kids with special needs because they don’t get the attention the most other kids would get,” shared Andrew. “You know, it’s smaller lines here. Santa knows how to cater to kids with special needs. He’s been doing this for a long time and it’s his passion to help kids. Everybody comes together, the community comes together to do this and there’s been a lot of really nice people out here today. They all know about special needs and it’s great we can come around and build a better community that wasn’t here 6 years ago when I started doing this.” By “this” Andrew means when he started Layin’ Down the Smackdown on Autism. He has a son, AJ, who was diagnosed with Autism in 2013. Since then, Andrew has been creating a community and opportunities for kids with special needs, including events like this Sensitive Santa.

Kids with autism are sensitive to sensory overstimulation, so the traditional loud, “HO HO HO!” and bright lights is too much for a lot of these kids. “Mall Santas have loud music, a lot of people, and it’s over stimulating,” explained Andrew. “He can’t do it. I’ll just use my son as an example. He gets over stimulated just here waiting. You go to a mall, you can’t do it. We decided to do this this year and it’s working out great. People are trickling in, trickling out, and it works out nice. Even if there was a long crowd we would be able to keep it under control.”  

Going to see Santa is a rite of passage. It’s exciting for kids and it’s exciting as a parent. As a parent you want to share these traditions with your kids. We want our kids to have all the same opportunities as other kids, including meeting the magical guy in the big red suit. We go out of our way to make sure our kids have special memories and holidays and meeting Santa is a huge piece of that. To bring a Sensitive Santa to Lodi means sweet kids, like Matthew, can experience those same special moments. When Matthew was sitting and smiling with Santa, his family had the joy of sharing that moment together. I’m sure they snapped some pictures on their phones to share with friends and family, and laugh and do all of those little things that makes being a parents so meaningful. Thanks to Sensitive Santa, they got to enjoy this holiday tradition along with many other families. What a wonderful holiday tradition to bring to families in Lodi.