Ability Connection: Sensory-friendly Santa event provides magical memories

Story, photos, and video by Lawson Martin.

Adults and children with developmental disabilities recently met Santa Claus in a safe and nurturing setting during the holiday season.

Ability Connection, a nonprofit serving over 1,000 people with all types of intellectual and/or other developmental disabilities across Texas, hosted the sensory-friendly Santa event on Saturday. The event was tailored to all needs, ensuring families and adults felt comfortable and secure while meeting Santa. Ability Connection offered a private photo session with Santa that did not include the usual bright lights and music that surround most holiday events.

“Going to the mall may not be an option because those lines are very long. They can be up to two, three hours of a wait,” says Meghan Payes, Director of Learning at Ability Connection. “Whereas when they can come here, they can sign up for a free time slot with Santa, and they can come and have a quiet moment with Santa. If they get in there and they’re not quite ready to meet Santa, they can come back out and try again in a little bit once they’re comfortable.”

The sensory-friendly Santa event also included crafts, hot cocoa, popcorn, cotton candy, and a sensory bus. The sensory bus was provided by a partnership with It’s a Sensory World, a nonprofit that offers multi-sensory educational, recreational, and therapeutic services for children with developmental disabilities and delays. The sensory bus featured various activities that allowed individuals to regulate their minds and bodies before meeting Santa.

Demonstrating the event’s significance, a local mother expressed joy at creating a cherished memory by getting a photo of her child and Santa after seven years of trying. She said she was thankful that Ability Connection provided her and her child with a calming environment to create that magical memory.

Meghan heard similar stories from several other parents who attended the event. She had one family share with her that they had stopped going to different places that had opportunities to meet Santa because they knew their child wouldn’t be able to wait in the long lines, but they came to the event on Saturday with high hopes that their son would feel comfortable with meeting Santa.

“The first time the kid went in to meet Santa, he was like, ‘Mmmm, nope.’ Not ready for it,” Meghan says. “But he’s been slowly warming up, and he finally went in and took that picture with Santa. And so the parents were very thankful for this environment because they wouldn’t be able to get that picture with Santa anywhere else. And so they’re thankful they have that memory with their kid.”

Jim Hanophy, president and CEO of Ability Connection, says his favorite part of the sensory-friendly Santa event is seeing families that “have not been successful in other arenas getting a photo.”

“It’s a very relaxed atmosphere, so the families are very grateful, and that’s what matters,” Jim says.

Leaders at Ability Connection say they’re committed to delivering top-tier services to the families the organization serves. This commitment is underscored by a personalized approach that recognizes each person’s abilities and emphasizes their potential.

In addition to the sensory-friendly Santa event, Ability Connection offers comprehensive services and support, including therapy, day habilitation, assistive technology, transportation, residential care, information and referral, and in-home support for individuals with disabilities.

“We take pride in serving people with the most significant disabilities and making sure they have an excellent quality of life, and they receive the care they need,” Jim says.

“Our members reflect our community. They are individuals with skills, passions, interests, humor, creativity, dignity, and determination. Today, one in five people have a disability, which is why our organization and its services are so critical to the community,” Ability Connection’s website states.

Meghan hopes to see the organization grow and reach more individuals and families in the future.

Ability Connection offers several volunteer opportunities, including forming one-on-one friendships with one of the organization’s members by being a Connection Companion, assisting the Training Center on weekdays, supporting group homes in the Dallas Metroplex, and contributing treats or gifts for holidays or wish lists.

To donate, volunteer, or learn more about Ability Connection, visit the organization’s website.