We got in line early for Santa. We decided to try him out again, this time in a comfortable and familiar environment: the nursery school Christmas party. Our daughter knew everyone in line, and although I could feel her tensing slightly, I thought this might be it. She might finally see Santa.

Five minutes later, that hope was dashed, and I had a child, shaking like a leaf, wrapped around me so tight that I could barely breathe. We knew Santa at the mall was never going to happen. How can you expect a child with sensory processing disorder to learn to love the man in the red suit when it means she has to stand in a long, hot line, in a noisy and stimulating mall, followed by a quick transition and the request to sit on a complete stranger’s lap within two seconds of meeting him?

But we had hoped, in this familiar place, surrounded by people she loved, we might be able to capture that Santa moment that everyone posts on Facebook and that my husband and I both enjoyed as kids. As it happens so often when you have a child with special needs, we were reminded to adjust our expectations.

She might never have that childhood experience of meeting Santa and sharing what she wanted for Christmas. Her hot internal wiring and her intense anxiety might prevent her from this quintessential childhood experience. I left the Christmas party deeply saddened.

That night, out of desperation and an intense love of Christmas, I googled “quiet Santa.” After a quick search, the term “Santa Cares” blinked at me. The event description read as follows:

“Santa Cares is an opportunity for children with special needs and their families to enjoy a photo session with Santa. Extra care has been taken to support the sensory, physical, and other developmental needs of children so they can enjoy this wonderful holiday tradition.”

I’ll be honest. I cried that night. Someone understood that all we want for our children with special needs is to be able to have the experience every other child gets to have. I booked a time slot and allowed myself a moment of quiet hope.

My husband and I were nervous walking into the unusually quiet mall on that Sunday morning. The details we had been given were few. We weren’t even sure we were in the right place. But there was Santa and his two employees, waiting for us. We were given a 15-minute time slot, so we wandered through the winter wonderland before we approached Santa.

He didn’t laugh, just said hello and sat quietly. In a soft voice, he asked my daughter what she liked and offered her play dough. It was perfect. We were rewarded with a beautiful picture of our daughter standing next to Santa with a huge grin on her face. She told everyone about her trip to see Santa, and Santa rewarded her with several items on her wish list.

This year, we returned for another Santa Cares experience. My daughter was ready for Santa, but her excitement set off her anxiety and sensory problems. So Santa offered her a plastic rubber ducky dressed in a Santa costume and they happily quacked Jingle Bells together. She was still not ready to stand next to Santa, so he suggested that they take a walk through his winter wonderland to find, and pet, all the stuffed penguins.

We did not get a picture with Santa this year, but the experience was worth more than anything else. I have an amazing photograph of Santa talking to my two children as they pet a stuffed penguin. That picture reminds me how the kindness of others makes all the difference in the world.

Santa Cares is the result of a partnership between Cherry Hills Programs and Autism Speaks. For more information, and to find Santa Cares in your area, visit the Cherry Hills Programs website. Please be aware that Santa cares programs are typically held before the mall opens during the first few weekends of the holiday season, so it’s important to plan ahead.