Sensory-friendly Santa visit offers calm setting, flexible option for Christmas photos

Students visit with Santa at sensory-friendly event

Santa and Mrs. Claus sat in small room in Carroll Springs School, a black backdrop wrapped in white lights behind them.

There were no plush decorations, no loud Christmas music and no line to wait for a picture.


The kids came in one family at a time, sometimes excited and sometimes worried. Some gave Santa and Mrs. Claus a high five, while others required the entire family to give hugs before they felt comfortable doing so. Some could communicate what was on their Christmas list, while others only laid in Santa’s arms, offering a smile or two.

It might not have been a traditional picture-with-Santa setup, but that’s exactly what brought families out Monday evening to Carroll Springs School’s first sensory-friendly Santa visit.

The Carroll County Family Support Network sponsored the sensory-friendly Santa visit Monday night at Carroll Springs School. The event included crafts and other coloring activities; dinner; a chance to run around and play in the gym; and, of course, a visit and photo with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

Gretchen Rockafellow, principal at Carroll Springs School, said the Family Support Network is a great way for parents to connect and share ideas.

“When you have a child with special needs, there’s no better resource than other people who have walked in your shoes,” Jill Wagoner, who was a large proponent of creating the support network, said. “This group allows them to connect.”

Wagoner, of Westminster, came out Monday night with her two children, Cooper, 8, and Kensington, 3, and husband, Price. The group holds events each month, and usually includes a speaker or informational session for parents while the kids can play and explore.

This is the first year of the organization, and the first time they’ve done a sensory Santa visit. This event, Rockafellow said, is a safer, more understanding environment for the kids to get to meet and interact with Santa.

“[The event is] for kids who probably wouldn’t do well at the mall,” she added.

For many children with special needs, a traditional setting at a mall or the equivalent would be too much, Nick Shockney, Carroll County Public Schools director of special education, said.

Sara and Sean Curran, of Sykesville, came out Monday with their children, Thomas, 5, Catherine, 3, and Ellie, 3 months.

Sara Curran said the sensory-friendly Santa event was a “nice option” because it offers seeing Santa in a really relaxed setting.

Something like this is especially great, Wagoner said, because it allows siblings to be involved, too. Especially having a younger daughter, she added, this event allowed Cooper and Kensington to experience something together in a setting in which Cooper felt comfortable.

“Without something like this, I’m not sure we would see Santa,” she added.