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I don’t come from one of those families that had a picture taken every single year, fail none, on Santa’s lap. My family had other traditions for the holidays and Santa’s lap did not figure among them. So, when it comes to getting my son, on the autism spectrum, onto Santa’s lap, it is not the priority of our holiday season. However, I was determined to get at least one done so I could cross it off my parenting list.

I knew it would take a great deal of effort to accomplish, so last year I began preparing my son as soon as the decorations started showing up around us—in other words, the day after Halloween. We watched others sit on Santa’s lap. We read books about Santa. Of course we worked on our letter to Santa. His therapists did practice runs pretending to be Santa, going over and over the steps involved, discussing what behavior was expected. I’m sure there was a Santa social story! I prepared my own self with a chunky coffee-table picture book called “Scared of Santa” that featured 288 pages of wailing children, frightful-looking Santas, and everything in-between, just to keep my humor intact and my expectations in check.

In the end, we have a truly beautiful portrait of my son smiling for the camera and Santa doing the same. The only one crying was me. Still, I don’t claim to have the secret to success. It was a heavy dose of luck, but if you decide that this just might be the year, here are a few more tips to get you started:

  1. Look for a “Special Santa”. Do a web search for needs-friendly Santas. If you don’t find any resources, call your local early intervention or pediatric therapy center. They often hear about special events that are not widely advertised elsewhere, or they may host their own Santa.
  2. Consider a Scheduled Appointment. You may have a portrait studio in town that offers Santa photos by appointment. You can possibly reduce the line, the crowds, and minimize the wait. Let the studio know any tips on how to accommodate your child. They will have greater ability to do so since you’ve reserved your own time with the photographer.
  3. Redefine the Santa Photo. We were raised on Kodachrome images of Santa in the throne, littlest one or two children on the lap, taller ones behind. If you are willing to have a picture of your child with Santa, realize that they can have a great photo without the pose. Get them side by side. Get Santa in the middle of a candy bribe. Just get them together and call it good.
  4. Prep the Photographer. Tell the Elf that is managing the line to just take some pictures if the time is right and not worry about getting a smile or eyes on the camera. The photographer might have passed up some good shots while they were waiting to get your child’s attention. By the time they are doing a jig to get your child to smile, it’s already too late.
  5. Research Your Options. There’s always a place in town where everyone goes. The most popular mall, the fanciest candy cane house, the Santa with the opulent robe. Yet sometimes the smaller malls have “perfectly good” Santa photos with virtually no lines, less fatigued Santas and less noise overall.
  6. Common Sense Reminders. Maximize your chances. Go early in the day, early in the season, on a weekday. Don’t insist on having all the family members present and in their best and most uncomfortable clothing. If you’re out and about with your sensitive child and all the stars seem to be aligned for a good photo, do it now. Picture yourself enjoying that photograph 30 years from now. All that matters is that your child is in it.