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Santa tones it down with Challenge Aspen

Danielle sits on Santa's lap in a dimly lit room at the Collective Snowmass.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Danielle Coulter sits on Santa’s lap at the Collective Snowmass during the Sensory Santa event on Dec. 22. Lights and music were turned down low to accommodate people who are sensitive to stimulation.

Santa was at “The Collective Snowmass” at the base of the Snowmass Ski Area Thursday among flashing lights, blow-up snowmen, and live Christmas music.

But at 4 p.m., there was a quick transformation.

Within a few minutes, the lights were turned down low, the music was off, and there was plenty of space for participants to move around.

Lindsay Cagley is the executive director of Challenge Aspen, which is based in Snowmass Village, and made some changes to the room’s decor.

“So we did remove some of the inflatable decorations, the ones that have air flowing through them,” Cagley said. “They're big and they move and they have a little bit of noise to them. The star drop lights are really beautiful normally, but they're flashing lights, and those can be prohibitive for someone who has challenges with, you know, sensory issues.”

She started the event last Christmas and brought it back this season for a second year.

“I did reach out to the Town of Snowmass and to the Collective team and just asked if they would be interested in this as an event,” Cagley said. “And they quickly said, ‘Absolutely, let me check with Santa.’ And Santa said, ‘I'm in, let's do it, whatever you need.’”

Erin gestures to Santa and other volunteers while preparing everyone for the event.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Erin Loftus provides an orientation for Santa and other volunteers at the Sensory Santa event at the Collective Snowmass on Dec. 22.

At Sensory Santa, families can make an appointment and skip the long lines typically seen at malls.

Challenge Aspen’s Volunteer Program Manager Erin Loftus says that’s often a barrier for people on the autism spectrum.

“It can be chaotic and create a lot of overstimulation for people with cognitive disabilities in particular, waiting in lines can be really triggering,” Loftus said, “So we're eliminating that by creating time slots for people to sign up to go speak with Santa.”

Loftus ran a short orientation at the start of the event to make sure all the volunteers, including Santa, were prepared to work with everyone.

“Some of our participants might be hard to understand at first, just by the way they talk,” Loftus said. “They're super intelligent, and they really pick up on facial and social cues. If you're having trouble understanding, please don't pretend like you can hear them. And if you need help, you have people from the office that might be able to help. If not, a lot of times I just say, ‘I'm sorry, I couldn't get that,’ and just keep the conversation going.”

Danielle sips from her coffee while volunteers tell stories about the holidays
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Participants, staff, and volunteers at the Sensory Santa event on Dec. 22 sit around a craft table making bracelets and writing letters to Santa.

Once the staff and volunteers were ready, it was time to open the doors.

The first to arrive were Danielle Coulter and Max Grange, who are both adults.

They’re regular participants in Challenge Aspen events, and they had the place to themselves yesterday.

Cagley and other staff said they had other people sign up for time slots, but when you have a kid with different abilities, life can be unpredictable.

Cagley works with Sarah McGough on occasion, who’s a board certified behavior analyst.

She says that events like these, even if sparsely attended, make a significant impact.

“It’s huge, McGough said. “Living in Denver or a bigger city gives you a lot of opportunities—a movie that's autism friendly or a prom or a dance that's autism friendly or disability friendly. That kind of adds up over time. So to have any sort of access that makes it easier for them to enjoy the same things as any other kid, it’s huge. It's massive.”

Coulter and Grange enjoyed making bracelets at the craft table and sitting next to Santa in a more relaxed environment.

And as the event was coming to a close, kids without disabilities started to poke their head in to see Santa too.

“I think that there are just families in general who over, over time struggle with this experience of lights and the performative side of visiting Santa,” Cagley said. “And so this is for them too, for families … to create better memories by having this sensory Santa. It applies broadly. It's like a universal design concept.”

Sensory Santa at the Collective Snowmass will take place again this afternoon at 4 p.m.

Halle is an award-winning journalist and the All Things Considered anchor for Aspen Public Radio. She has been recognized for her work by the Public Media Journalists Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association. Before she began working full-time with Aspen Public Radio in September 2021, Halle was a freelance broadcast journalist for both Aspen Public Radio and KDNK. Halle studied environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She was an educator at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and at the Andy Zanca Youth Empowerment program, where she taught youth radio and managed a weekly public affairs show.