As Christmas nears, many kids will be planning their visits to the big guy in red. But for kids with autism or other behavioral or intellectual disorders, this can be a challenging endeavor. Fortunately, more and more programs are popping up to make it a little easier and the Indianapolis area has several opportunities.

In select Simon malls across the country host Santa visits outside regular mall hours for special needs kids. Participating malls create a sensory-friendly environment by dimming the lights and turning off music, elevators and TVs. Some locations even provide snacks and a special activity to make kids more comfortable.

And, in an effort to create a more positive environment, participating Santas have received additional training to work with special needs kids.

These events are free, but photo packages will be available for purchase. For those outside Central Indiana, there are more than 100 participating shopping centers in 40 different states. Click here for a complete list and to find one near you.

Castleton Square Mall, Fashion Mall at Keystone and Greenwood Park Mall, are the central Indiana locations that provide children with all spectrums of special needs and their families with an opportunity to enjoy this time-honored holiday tradition through a sensory-friendly Caring Santa event in association with Autism Speaks. Caring Santa will occur on varying dates and times prior to mall openings. Guests must register in advance at  The Castleton Square Mall, Fashion Mall at Keystone and Greenwood Park Mall Santa Experiences will also share the heart of Santa by collecting donations for Autism Speaks throughout the holiday season.

Tips for Creating a Positive Santa Experience:

If you can’t make it to one of the Caring Santas, there are still lots of opportunities for your child to visit with the big guy. Below are a few tips that might make it a little easier.

1) Preparation is key in all things special needs. Before your Santa visit, create a picture book, visual schedule or social story to help your child get familiar with what to expect.

2) Communicate your needs. Calling the venue in advance will help with your preparations and determine if it will be a good fit for your family. Plus, it lets them know what special needs families need. Questions to ask: Are there quiet hours offered? If not, when is the least busy time to visit? Does the Santa have experience with special needs children? Will it be OK if my child stands next to Santa rather than sitting on his lap? Is it wheel chair friendly? Also, when you arrive, don’t hesitate to let the staff know your needs.

3) Bring some comfort items and/or props along. My son is very high energy and when he was a toddler, we knew there was no way he’d sit for a photo with Santa. So I had the idea to bring a few cookies along. Everybody knows Santa loves cookies, and it definitely captivated my son’s attention. It also made for a great photo. Older kids might want to bring along a hand written list or even a small gift for Santa. Engage them by letting them choose what to bring. Giving them purpose and something to focus on can significantly ease stress.

4) Waiting in line can be the hardest part, especially for those who have mobility issues. Bring along another adult who can hang out with your child while you navigate the line.

5) If it still sounds like visiting Santa might be too overwhelming, there are lots of alternatives to seeing him in person. We have some great resources for arranging a special personalized call or video from Santa.