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Merry Christmas to ALL

Local teacher gives Santas a lesson

     He errs who thinks Santa enters through the chimney. Santa enters through the heart.
–Charles W. Howard, 1937
      Loud music, bright flashing lights, sensory stimulation, mounting excitement: The very things that make this time of year magical can become a recipe for distress for some children and their weary parents.
      Even Santa can be over the top for some kiddies who visit him at public appearances.
       That’s why Courtney Helmer went to Santa school.
      Helmer, a teacher at The Harbour School in Annapolis, visited the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School in Midland, Michigan, to give more than 300 Santas and Mrs. ­Clauses a crash course in creating a safe and accessible environment for children with special needs.
      Helmer’s class was one of many at the Harvard of Santa Schools’ three-day conference.
      Santa School has convened annually since 1937 to train the men and women who work in Santa villages around the country. Typical subjects are the history of St. Nick, hot new toys and reindeer habits.
     Helmer’s course, Merry Christmas to ALL, drew on her research and experience in special education to teach the Clauses to make the holiday special for children with disabilities. 
     “It’s important to prevent holiday stress before it even happens,” Helmer says. “Usually Santa is in a big mall or loud public setting with lots of noise. Children may be extremely sensitive to lights, cameras flashing, elevated noise levels. And many children suffer from anxiety issues, so it’s difficult for them to wait in line for a long time. Many just don’t have the coping skills.”
     Helmer encouraged the Santas to consider sensory-friendly sessions for these children.
     “That could mean a separate venue, a separate time where families can reserve a spot ahead of time so there’s no waiting and the lights are low and the noise is low. All those things that cause overstimulation are eliminated.”
      Helmer admits to feeling nervous before that audience. But, she says, “they were the happiest, kindest people in the world. We were all there for the same purpose and mission: to spread kindness and joy to all.”