‘Sensitive Santa’ events provide calm holiday experience for Hampton Roads children with special needs

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Stopping by the mall to visit Santa may be overwhelming for children with special needs. That includes children with autism.

“When you have too much input, it’s hard for you to focus and especially if you’re on the autism spectrum, it depends on what your sensory needs are,” said Nicole Miller, chapter operations manager of the Autism Society, Tidewater Virginia.

Several local organizations are working to make that holiday tradition a little bit easier for some children with “Sensitive Santa” events.

“These programs are crucial for our families and for our kiddos and adults in the community,” said Alison Barclift, with Sentara Therapy Center Pediatrics Newtown.

The events are sensory-inclusive, which means they include dim lights, scheduled times with Santa, and quiet music.

“Kids have some sensitivity to some sound and some lights and some crowds and they react a little bit differently,” said Mark Llobell, founder and CEO of the Virginia Autism Foundation. “The neat part about these organizations is we understand that, so we try to provide a sensory safe and a sensory-friendly environment for our kids.”

These events may be quiet, but make no mistake, they don’t skimp on holiday fun.

“We’ll have Santa Claus, we’re going to have some toys,” said Tyler Williamson, Families of Autistic Children of Tidewater executive director.

However, the best gifts of all are the memories created.

“Great opportunities for parents and families to all come and get together in an accepting and fun environment and get to talk, socialize, communicate and get into the Christmas spirit,” Williamson said.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity to participate in different things,” said Barclift. “Everybody deserves events and people in their lives that helps them access their voice and their autonomy.”

Some Sensitive Santa Events in our area include:

  • Sunday, December 5th from 9:30am – 10:30am at the MacArthur Mall. Click here for more information. (SOLD OUT)
  • Saturday, December 11th at 2:30pm, Virginia Beach Friends School, 1537 Laskin Rd, Virginia Beach, VA 23451, hosted by TASA, FACT, VA Autism Foundation. Click here for more information.
  • Saturday, December 11th from 8am – 12pm, Sentara Red Mill Therapy Center, 2033 Fisher Arch, Suite 120, Virginia Beach, call 757-395-8485 or by e-mail pakryke2@sentara for reservations
  • Saturday December 11th from 10am – 12pm, hosted by Cole’s Horse Autism Therapy Station, 100 Old Pond Road, Yorktown, $25 for a family of 5, email to reserve a spot
  • Saturday, December 18th from 9am – 12:30pm, STC-Peds Newtown, 818 Newtown Road, Virginia Beach, call (757) 261-4475 to make a reservation, $10 per family
  • Saturday, December 18th from 8:30am – 12:30pm, 5705 Thurston Avenue, Virginia Beach, VA 23455, $15 per family, hosted by LEAF Behavior Support Click here for more information.

If you are hosting a Sensitive Santa event that you do not see on this list, please email

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