THE hustle and bustle of Christmas can be tricky for some autistic children and adults, with crowds, flashing lights and loud music creating sensory overload.

But that doesn’t have to mean missing out on the fun. More and more venues are providing quiet, relaxed or sensory-friendly visits that are tailor-made for the neurodivergent among us.

Kerrie Highcock, family development manager at the North East Autism Society, says: “Everyone should be able to join in the fun of the festive season, but for autistic people this can be a challenging time.

“Adaptations to make events more accessible can mean the difference between a family having the experience or not being able to take part.

“I have been lucky enough over the years to see the impact of such changes. Seeing people being able to just be themselves is amazing.”

The charity, which supports more than 6,000 people and their families around the region each week, has put together free festive toolkits and family fun packs which you can download here.

Download our free festive packs

And we have also compiled a great big round-up of autism-friendly events in the North East this Christmas. See below for our guide to quiet Santa's grottos, relaxed pantos, autism-friendly screenings, quiet shopping hours and other festive fun.

Quiet Santa’s grottos

Want to see Santa but can’t face the crowds? We’ve tracked down some sensory-friendly grottos where you and your family can visit the big man in peace.

This can involve allocated times to avoid crowds and queuing, subdued lighting and music, and staff trained to make the visit as accessible as possible.

Dobbies run Quiet Grottos in 50 of their garden centres from 2.30pm to 5.30pm on Friday December 8, including Ponteland (book here), Birtley (book here), Gosforth (book here), Morpeth (book here), and Stockton (book here). All time slots are booked so there is no queuing, music and twinkling lights are turned off, you can choose to have a present wrapped or unwrapped, and you are sent a photograph before the day so you can visualise what you will see there.

Winter Wonderscape: A journey to the North Pole, runs at the MetroCentre November 20th - January 7th. The relaxed SEN sessions are every Wednesday at 11am, with reduced capacity and quieter music. Book the tickets here.

  • Life, in Newcastle, has an animated show What Santa Sees in its planetarium as part of the general entrance ticket. There are no special relaxed sessions, but ear defenders are available from reception and you can download a visual story in advance from here.

  • Father Christmas at Gibside Stables, near Rowlands Gill, is an interactive story event and there are five relaxed sessions where audiences will be smaller and noise levels reduced. These are on December 3rd, 9th, 16th, 17th and 23rd; see times and book tickets here.

  • Elf School at New Hartley Memorial Hall, Whitley Bay. Learn Elf skills, win your Elf bells and visit Santa at the same time. There's a SEN session at 10.30am on Sunday 17th December. Book here.

  • The Quiet Father Christmas experience at Wallington, in Northumberland, is sold out .. but we're told that Mrs Christmas is a good experience for families. She will be at Wallington telling stories on 2nd, 3rd, 9th, 10th, 16th, 17th and 23rd December and no booking is required. Read more here.

  • The Bridges in Sunderland has a quiet hour for Santa visits between 11am and 12pm on Sundays.

  • West Boldon Lodge is running an Enchanted Forest Playschool especially for pre-schoolers on Friday 1st December, which includes crafts, games or walks in the woods and visit to Santa's grotto. Organisers say they are equipped to meet additional needs if they are informed in advance. Tickets cost £15 per child, £12 concession - book here.

  • Dalton Park has a Santa's grotto outside the Next outlet, and every Sunday there is a quiet experience from 11am to 12pm. Lights are dimmed, music turned down and tannoy announcements switched off. It costs £6 per child and no booking is necessary.

  • Auckland Castle in County Durham is putting on six sensory-friendly sessions of its AGLOW light trail, which includes a Santa's village. They take place on Tuesday 28th November, Monday 4th December and Thursday 14th December at 4.30pm and 5pm, when the site will be less crowded and quieter. Book tickets here.

  • Noo Noo’s Forest at Haystax inclusive farm in Lanchester, County Durham, has a forest festive trail featuring Santa or Mrs Claus on 22nd and 23rd December. It’s SEN-friendly and includes crafts and marshmallow toasting. Tickets are available here.

Relaxed pantos

The Sunderland Empire holds a Gold Standard Autism Acceptance Award from NEAS for making sure its shows and services are as supportive, understanding and accessible as possible.

That includes its Christmas panto, which includes a relaxed performance where audiences can come in and out, make a noise, or withdraw to a quiet area.

The cast of this year’s show, Beauty and the Beast, explain what to expect in this TikTok.

But it’s not just the Empire that does relaxed performances – here’s our top ten list this year with times of special showings and how to book.

Sunderland Empire - Beauty and the Beast.

Relaxed performance Wednesday 27th December at 5pm.

Book here

Tyne Theatre & Opera House, Newcastle - Peter Pan.

Relaxed performance Friday 8th December at 1pm and Wednesday 3rd January at 4pm.

Book here

Northern Stage, Newcastle - Cinderella: A Fairytale.

Relaxed performances Sunday 17th December at 1pm, and Wednesday 20th December at 10am and 2pm.

Book here

The Glass House, Gateshead - RNS: The Snowman in Concert.

Relaxed performance Friday 22nd December at 2pm.

Book here

Theatre Royal, Newcastle - Pinocchio.

Relaxed performances Sunday 10th December at 12pm and Wednesday 10th January at 12pm.

Book here

The Customs House, South Shields - Aladdin.

Relaxed performance Thursday 28th December at 10.30am.

Book here

Gala Theatre, Durham - Cinderella.

Relaxed performance Friday 8th December at 1pm.

Book here

Forum Theatre, Billingham - Jack & the Beanstalk.

Relaxed performance Tuesday 5th December at 6pm.

Book here

Darlington Hippodrome - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Relaxed performance Friday 15th December at 12pm.

Book here

Alnwick Playhouse - Snow White.

Relaxed performance Wednesday 27th December at 4pm.

Book here


Relaxed cinema screenings

If films are more your thing, some cinemas do relaxed screenings with muted sound, no adverts or trailers, and lights left on low during the film. 

But finding them can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Two websites that help by rounding up listings are Accessible Screenings UK, and Dimensions.

Showcase say they have autism-friendly screenings every Sunday at 10am; Vue cinemas say their relaxed screenings are the last Sunday of every month; for Tyneside Cinema, it’s the first Sunday of every month. Odeon and Cineworld don’t specify a regular date.

Christmas screenings we have found so far are:

  • The Muppet Christmas Carol, Sunday 26th November at 11.30am, at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle.
  • Wish, Sunday 26th November at 10am, at Showcase Cinema de Lux, Teesside.
  • Wish, Sunday 3rd December at 11am, at Vue cinemas and Cineworld Cinemas. In addition, Cineworld Dalton Park is hosting festive arts and crafts from around 10am as well as giving out free chocolate surprises for children ahead of the screening. 
  • Frozen 2, Friday 8th December at 10am, at Everyman, Newcastle.


Shopping quiet hours

Shops and malls have worked on becoming more accessible all year round, and many have quieter hours where tannoy announcements are stopped, music lowered or switched off, and till beeps muted.

Eldon Square went further and became the first shopping centre in the area to achieve our Autism Acceptance Gold Award after working with NEAS for seven years.

Here’s what they and other shops, centres and supermarkets around the region do:

Eldon Square, Newcastle
  • Quiet hours are every Tuesday (10-11am) and Saturday (9-10am) all year round
  • All staff receive autism awareness training
  • Sensory backpack for hire for three hours (£20 refundable deposit)
  • Autism-friendly visual guide available here
 Metrocentre, Gateshead
  • Quiet hours on Tuesday 5th December (9-10am) and Saturday 9th December (9-10am)
  • Sensory backpacks available from customer service desks in upper Platinum and lower Green malls
 Bridges, Sunderland
  • Quiet hour 11-12pm on Sundays, with no music or rides
 Dalton Park, County Durham
  • Quiet hours every Tuesday, 10am-12pm
Darlington town centre
  • Quieter hour every Sunday, 10.30-11.30am 
Cleveland Centre, Middlesbrough
  • Quiet hour every Saturday, 9-10am
Hill Street Shopping Centre, Middlesbrough
  • Quiet hours Sunday 10.30am-12pm 
  • Quiet hour every Wednesday and Saturday, 9-10am. Visual aids here 
  • Quieter hour Monday-Thursday 2-3pm
  • Quieter hour 9-10am on Saturday 
  • Autism aware quiet evenings Tuesday 6-8pm

Other festive fun

The Bounce House in Spennymoor has a SEN Christmas party on 22nd December at 5-7pm. It costs £12.95 a child and includes a two-hour bounce, supper with Santa and a present. To book, message the Bounce House on Facebook.

Northern Lights in Newcastle – a one-mile light trail in Leazes Park – has earmarked Thursday 7th December as more suitable for neurodivergent guests. There’ll be fewer attendees and audio will be muted for sessions between 4.15pm and 5.15pm. You can book tickets here – but be quick, they’re selling out fast.

Luna Blu creative arts therapy in South Shields is holding children’s sensory-friendly Christmas workshops on 16th December. For age 4-plus, there’s decorate a plate plus crafts from 10.30am-12pm – tickets can be booked here. And for age 6-plus, there’s a snowglobe creation session from 1pm-2.30pm – tickets here.

The Tim Lamb Centre in Benton is holding a series of Christmas parties for members of Pathways 4 All: a toddler fun day for the under-fives on Monday 18th December 10am-2pm (drop-in); a quiet party (10-12) and a lively party (1-3pm) on Saturday 9th December (tickets from reception), and a youth groups Snow Party on Monday 11th December 4.30-6.30pm (email [email protected]).

Starz Drama School are holding a Party Dance Night for children with additional needs at Seaham Grange (SR7 0PX) on Wednesday 13th December at 5pm-6pm. The session with be relaxed, with low-level music and sensory equipment available. Tickets are £8 from Starz.

Unite Club are offering family-friendly Christmas activity sessions run by and for autistic and neurodivergent people. They offer a relaxed sensory space, warm drink, snack, activities, a movie, and a sensory toy to take home. One session is on 21st December at The Hub, Consett, and one is on 22nd December at the Blaydon Youth and Community Centre. Book here. (Unite Club is a partnership between Union Jab, an inclusive boxing club, and coach Katie Toner of Dark Sky Sleepovers.) 

See our festive resources