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So What Can We All Learn From Sensitive Santa?

· Christmas,accommodations,modifications,holidays,disability

I’m sure many of you may have heard of the terms accommodations and modifications in the education world. And if you are that parent (like me) you are well versed not only in what these terms mean, but you also know exactly what your child needs in order for him/her to be successful in the school environment. Advocating for the appropriate accommodations and/or modifications is certainly a job in it’s own, and I know that I am an expert when it comes to my child’s learning, her rights, and her needs.

Accommodations and modifications are 2 big buzz words also used in special education, and are often used interchangeably. However these two terms do not mean the same thing, and have very important implications in a child’s learning. Whether you are an educator or not, it is important to KNOW the difference (hence my inspiration to write this blog post just before the Christmas holiday…. trust me this will all make sense by the time you finish reading this post).

Before I begin explaining, I would like to stress the fact that the terms accommodations and modifications are fluid with each other. Students, especially those with autism, may slide back and forth from modifications to accommodations based on interest, cognitive abilities, and lack of reciprocity depending on factors such as content area, time of year, and curriculum areas. If you are not an educator, get ready as I’m about to throw some edu-babble at you...

According to the Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools – First Edition, Covering Grades 1 to 12 it states that, “Students with special education needs may require accommodations to allow them to participate in the curriculum and to demonstrate achievement of the expectations. Accommodations include individualized teaching and assessment strategies, human supports, and/or individualized equipment. Modifications are changes made to the grade-level expectations for a subject or course in order to meet a student’s learning needs. Modifications may include the use of expectations at a different grade level and/or an increase or decrease in the number and/or complexity of expectations relative to the curriculum expectations for the regular grade level.”

My colleague who slays the special education world, Laura Seckington translates the terms accommodations and modifications in the simplest and purest way. “Accommodations are the HELP (sometimes people, environment or 'stuff') that allows a student to be successful. We aren't changing what we are asking the student to do, but we are adding in tools that will help them perform at their best. For example: an EA writing down a student's answers on an assignment (scribing), offering a quiet place to write a test or a pair of headphones to block out distractions in a noisy classroom. Accommodations are good teaching practice and are probably things that you as an educator are already doing. What is good for one student is good for all. Modifications are actual changes to the curriculum - making a goal easier or changing it completely to help the student achieve it. This could mean changing the complexity of the expectation like throwing a ball in any direction rather than to hit a target. It could also mean eliminating goals completely if they are not appropriate or realistic for the student.”

Bella is cognitively at a 12-month old level, and does require many modifications to her programming at school. This ensures that the learning is intentional for her as outlined in the expectations in her Individual Education Plan (IEP). Bella also relies on many accommodations to help her understand and clarify instructions, along with giving her alternate methods and mediums to achieve a simple expectation. Here is a glimpse of Bella’s accommodations page straight from her IEP. Cue drum roll please...

Yes, this extensive list took an amazing team of teachers and support staff to develop, and with these accommodations in place there is no reason for Bella to be sitting on the sidelines as an observer as her peers participate in a given task.

So now let's take a look on the home front. Parenting a child with a disability can be a challenge, and often those challenges feel like a strong tidal wave coming at us. For me, one of my biggest fear is experiencing feelings of isolation when going out in public, as accommodations and modifications aren’t always easily accessible. For us, adequate bathroom facilities are becoming a bigger problem as Bella is growing. The ability to contain a meltdown as her body gets bigger and stronger is becoming a bigger challenge. And even the physical environment such as a curb in front of a store, always screams “You are not welcome here!” when Bella is in her wheelchair.

Many times it’s just easier to stay home.

I am also very aware of the sensory stimulation Bella will be exposed to when we are out and about. When I walk into a restaurant, the first thing I check is the brightness of the lights, as it is always a trigger for Bella to stim on. Knowing that there is going to be a line-up or a large crowd when going to an event will always make me feel tense as I can never predict how Bella will handle the wait-time and noise levels. Unexpected loud noises such as the hand dryer in a bathroom will always make me nervous as I know it will deter Bella from sitting on a toilet. I’m sure all my #MomBehindTheLabel readers who have children with disabilities can add to this list of worries... however I am happy to say that there are great things happening around our city to make our life easier!

Many public places are now learning about disabilities and sensory processing disorders, in hopes to ensure that families who have these challenges can be successful. Here are some examples of places that I know first hand that do a great job with accommodations.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada:

This facility is a certified autism centre that demonstrates their commitment to ensuring guests with autism and sensory sensitivities have the best possible experience. As part of the certification process, Ripley’s Aquarium staff underwent extensive training as well as an onsite review which involved the integration of IBCCES Sensory Guides at each exhibit to give visitors more information on sensory impacts. Additionally, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada hosts monthly sensory-friendly hours throughout the year, which will offer increased lighting, a music-free environment and a quiet room for guests who require a break. These sensory days were developed in conjunction with Autism Ontario and will occur on the first Sunday of the month from 9am-noon.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO):

The TSO offers a series of accommodated orchestral music called ‘relaxed performances’. These performances are intended to be sensitive to and welcoming of neurodiverse audiences, including patrons on the autism spectrum, those with sensory and communication disorders, people with learning disabilities, or those who simply want a more relaxed concert experience. Last year our family was invited as VIP #MomBehindTheLabel guests to experience the Let’s Dance performance, you can read about my review here. Check out a list of 2019/2020 TSO Relaxed Performances.


My friend Myra has also shared some great things a grocery store is doing up in Haliburton, Ontario with me. Foodland has created a sensory-friendly experience aimed at easing shopping for people and families with autism. Many people with autism are hypersensitive to lights and sounds, by turning down the lights, turning off the sounds of scanners, turning off the music and turning off announcements during the two hour period. Kudos for Foodland for creating a more pleasurable shopping experience by accommodating the physical environment.

The holidays are a wonderful time for some kids. Bright lights, Christmas music, family gatherings and parties, along with visits with Santa can all be part of happy childhood memories. However for children with disabilities and their families, the disruption to their routine, unfamiliar sights and smells, a room full of noise and people can all prove to be too much.

When Bella was young, visiting Santa was a classic tradition we did during the holidays, as it was essential to have a keepsake photo. Although it used to be a favourite time for us, it soon became a very stressful and overwhelming experience as the sensory overload of lineups, crowds and noise was an easy deterrent for our family. This year, one of our Holland Bloorview friends shared that Sensitive Santa would be visiting the hospital. You can definitely count on the Haefele’s to be there for this special day!

When we arrived at our pre booked time, we were welcomed by a group of Bloorview volunteers into a quiet room. Petie’s mouth dropped when he saw all the tables of arts and crafts waiting for him to colour, cut, stick and glue. We were told that Santa was taking a break with his reindeer, so Petie immediately went straight to the table to create some wooden ornaments, and Bella threw snowballs to Olaf.

Within a short time, we were summoned to go to another room as Sensitive Santa was waiting patiently for us. The room was dim and peaceful with very little distractions and noises. Bella showed off her necklace by shaking it around, and Santa’s elf gladly shared her jingle-bells to continue playing with her. As Bella sat nicely beside Sensitive Santa, Petie jumped on his knee and shared his list him (*Puleeeese, no more Pokemon). After a few smiles and giggles, we were gifted some toys for the kids, and then we happily said our good-bye’s!

So what can we all learn from Sensitive Santa?

The hard truths of parenting children with disabilities are in no way a reflection of how we feel about our kids. We love our special needs kids and would move mountains for them. However I want my #MomBehindTheLabel readers, restaurant managers, store owners, event planners, and anyone who makes decisions in these public spaces to think about being compassionate, empathetic, and to try having an open mind. Please be sensitive to our families because ultimately, we want you to stand with us, because when you do you will see that we are courageous, funny, resilient, brave, generous, forgiving and so full of love. And we want to share that with you too! As I always like to end my posts with something for my readers to pause and ponder. I would like you to take some time to watch this video, as it perfectly shows you the magic of accommodations!

~ A Star Wars Experience for ALL ~

(Turn up your volume, and watch it to the end!)

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