Playing Santa is Sometimes Hard

Kate and Santa

When my daughter Kate (who suffered a brain injury at age 2) was young, we’d go see Santa and take the annual picture. Positioning her on his lap, wiping any drool away, and maybe even getting her to smile meant we had to find the really patient Santa and go when there wasn’t a line of other kids waiting. I knew exactly which mall had that good Santa. Kate wasn’t verbal, so at least she didn’t have a long list for him.

Let’s talk about that Christmas list for a bit. Most kids, by the time they are 3 or 4 years old, have this whole “presents” thing mastered. They’re able to rattle off an amazing litany of toys with very specific requirements. Even if they won’t sit on Santa’s lap and tell him item by item what they really, really, really want, lists are made and letters to the North Pole are sent. In other words, most parents have a pretty clear idea that, come Christmas morning, the toys waiting under the tree will be a hit.

However, when you have a child with special needs — especially one who scores well below the norm in expressive language skills — it’s hard to know what to shop for at Christmas. Should we get age-appropriate toys? That’s much tougher as the child gets older and the options decrease. Should we look at toys or activities that promote development? Can’t I just get her a stupid Barbie? That’s what her sister wanted at that age.

Target Toys

How can you make a child’s eyes light up if she can’t tell you what makes her happy?

I clearly remember trips to toy stores at Christmas, walking up and down the aisles, trying to find something that might make Kate’s eyes light up on Christmas morning, just like my other kids. Many times, I left those stores in tears with another stuffed animal to add to her ridiculously enormous collection, or with another silly toy that could be adapted with a switch she could hit to activate light and sounds. Batteries were never included, so a $7.95 toy wound up costing $49.95 by the time it was adapted and fed four D batteries practically every day. Did she enjoy those toys? I guess so. Did they make her holiday bright? I have no idea.

When Kate’s grandparents, aunts and uncles, or siblings asked us for gift suggestions, we couldn’t help them. No, I needed those rare ideas for myself. Another wrinkle: Kate’s birthday was in mid-November, so if we scored on her birthday, Christmas became that much harder.

Spoiler Alert:  This is not one of those inspirational holiday posts where the true meaning of Christmas is revealed.  I know that in the grand scheme of things, gifts are not what makes a Christmas good or crummy. I also know that my daughter was truly loved. But playing Santa and watching your children open presents that make them squeal is one of those moments that makes being a parent so rewarding.

For most families, after the flurry of wrapping paper settles, the happy shouts die down, the missing instructions (or the tiny but important piece that accidentally got wadded up with the wrapping paper) are found, many of those toys come to sit in the corner, ignored or forgotten, once the newness wears off. I guess we just skipped a few of those steps with Kate.

Kate passed away at the age of 26 — almost four years ago. I miss her terribly every day. Do I miss the frustration and challenge of finding the perfect Christmas present? You bet I do.

The art of the present

Child giving a gift

For kids who have a hard time taking the perspective of others — kids with “social thinking” challenges — coming up with presents for Mom, Grandpa, or a school buddy is a near-Herculean task.

After all, a present is a way of saying, “I know you, and when I put myself in your shoes, I think you would like this.”

My son, who has an Asperger’s diagnosis, doesn’t do that so well. He is great at thinking of stuff we should buy him. He is the king of online browsing. While I cook, he tells me about various toys in great detail, then emails me the links to buy them.

But he’s not so keen to shop for others. His gift-buying for friends and relatives has always been heavily facilitated.  I suspect that this aspect of “thinking of others” needs to be explicitly taught.

So this year I made a worksheet that breaks down the steps involved in buying a present. Here is one he filled out for a close relative:

Gift Worksheet

Step 1: Brainstorm about what the person likes. Note there are two ways to think about this: by interests and hobbies, which are more abstract categories (“science”); and by what the child has seen the person enjoy, which is more experiential (“frozen yogurt”).

Step 2: Building on the ideas in Step 1, come up with some ideas for gifts.

Step 3: Figure out where the gifts might be purchased or made.

Step 4: Follow through! After your child makes or buys a present, let him or her check off the box and write out what is certainly the world’s best present. If you’re offering positive reinforcement, follow-through should be a big part of earning the reward.

The worksheet pictured led my son to buy a little jewelry kit online. It has arrived, and we will wrap it, but the best part will be watching him revel in “ooohs” and “ahs” when his Nonnie opens it.

FREE Tickets Available to see AXIS Dance Company

Sunday, December 2nd, 2:00 p.m.
AXIS Dance Company’s Target Family Performance
as seen on So You Think You Can Dance

FREE Ticket Offer
20 tix available

Audience members of all ages (6 & up) will be inspired by the program and leave excited about dance.  Don’t miss this amazing event — grab your closest friends and family and we’ll see you at the show.

AXIS creates, performs, and teaches “physically integrated dance”— a contemporary dance form that evolves from the collaboration between dancers with and without disabilities.

Axis Dance Company, one of the country’s most acclaimed and innovative ensembles of performers with and without disabilities, will change the way you think about the possibilities of the human body forever.  The Company is known for its high artistic and educational standards and for cutting edge collaborations with world-renowned choreographers and composers.

WHERE:  Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St. Oakland, CA
[b/w 14th & 17th Streets, near 12th Street BART]
*Wheelchair accessible venue   **ASL available

RSVP: Please contact Mollie at (510) 625-0110 or by Nov. 23rd.  Please include First & Last Name, # of Tickets, and Age Range — and please indicate that you are calling from Matrix Parent Network.  Program is recommended for children 6 years and older.  20 tickets available on a first come, first served basis.
Complimentary tickets offered through he generous support of Target.

Halloween Tricks: How to Turn a Sometimes Scary Holiday into a Treat for Your Child With Special Needs … and YOU!

Ah, the holidays.  For many parents who have children with special needs, thinking about the cascade of parties, visitors, photo ops, and food that flows from October 31st – January 1st can be … frightening.  It’s ironic that the first big holiday geared toward children can also be the scariest.  It has all of the regular holiday expectations PLUS a scratchy, poufy, hot, ugly, “not-the-Spiderman-one-I-wanted” costume.  Gulp, costume.

If you’re happily looking forward to this year’s Halloween, then you’ve probably already found some great tricks that work well for your family.  However, if you find yourself in need of some help, check out some things we’ve found around the web that may help you relax and enjoy this fun holiday with your family.

Choosing a costume can be a daunting task for even the most creative parent.  Below are some costume ideas for children with mobility difficulties, fabric sensitivities, allergens, or other challenges:

If you are a parent of a child with juvenile diabetes, Celiac disease, food allergies, or  other dietary restrictions, you may find yourself playing the tough role of candy cop on Halloween.  Or, you may have decided that sugary treats just aren’t good for your child’s health or teeth.  Here are some alternatives to candy that can keep everyone smiling:

Halloween is a scary holiday, but for kids with special needs, fear and anxiety can be compounded by a variety of different triggers.  Crowds, noise, the dark, and high expectations can turn the holiday sour pretty fast.  Here are some tips for parents to help you and your kids enjoy the day:

You may decide to simply have a night at home.  Here are some fun things you can do around the house.

If the idea of watching Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street with your kids leaves you feeling a little queasy, here are some kid-friendly Halloween movie suggestions.  These flicks don’t skimp on the scary, but leave the gore alone:

Ski with Disabled Sports!

It’s almost ski season — and time to make adaptive  snowsports lesson reservations for groups! Disabled Sports offers three resorts to choose from this year:

Students/patients/clients with disabilities are encouraged to participate in lessons as often as possible, as a group or individually.  A maximum of 3 scholarship lessons are available to those who qualify.  Please remember that these scholarships are available on a first-come-first-served basis to those who qualify. (See attached scholarship application.)

Disabled Sports Membership fees are $30 per person, or $10 for those who qualify for scholarships. You can also pay as a group for $100, whichever is less.

Make your reservations before DECEMBER 1st by calling Cindy Smith at 530-581-4161×202 or email

After November 1st reservations are open to the general public and fill up quickly.