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While most children are excited to celebrate the holiday season, many children with developmental delays and disabilities struggle this time of year. The lights, sounds, and celebrations can be overwhelming for special needs kids. The experts at The Warren Center, a nonprofit agency providing professional evaluations, therapy services and support to children with developmental delays and disabilities — have found ways to control the chaos to create an experience that is fun for the whole family at their annual Operation Santa event.  

The nonprofit recently welcomed more than 600 children and their families to celebrate the season in a safe and sensory-friendly way with their specialized drive-thru event, Operation Santa, on December 5, 2020, at the United Methodist Church of Richardson. 

“Every year, the Warren Center hosts hundreds of children with developmental delays and disabilities at the annual Operation Santa holiday event, where gifts from our annual toy drive are distributed in a fun, safe and sensory-friendly atmosphere. This year's event, however, looked different due to COVID-19. To ensure social distancing and proper COVID-19 safety protocols, we are altered the party's format to serve as a drive-thru holiday celebration,” says Amy Spawn, CEO of The Warren Center. “2020 has been a challenging year for many North Texans, including the families we serve, of which at least 50 percent live beneath Texas' poverty line. Our families' needs will be much greater this year than ever before. Many of the young children we serve have chronic health conditions – and as a precaution, their parents and caregivers have decided to quarantine their families. At this year's Operation Santa, we created a sensory-friendly environment for children with developmental disabilities and their families to enjoy the holiday season safely.”

For those who are interested in learning how to celebrate the season in a safe and sensory-friendly way, the experts at The Warren Center recommend the following tips to enjoy a sensory-friendly holiday season: 

Avoid sensory overload

Consider shopping online or having someone pick up gifts for you. The crowds, sounds and lights of busy stores can be too much for a child with developmental delays and disabilities. 

Choose sensory-friendly holiday options

Flashing lights on a Christmas tree might be overwhelming to a child with developmental delays and disabilities, but a strand of lights that gently changes colors might be a good alternative. Most LED Christmas lights offer softer choices to enjoy the twinkling. Do your homework to see if virtual visits from Santa are available or consider hosting your own visit from Santa at home. 

Make gifts easy to open

Kids with disabilities may not have the motor skills needed to unwrap a gift with a lot of tape or bows. Make gifts easy to open by loosely wrapping with a little bit of tape or use gift bags. 

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