Specially trained Santas visit children with autism in malls across America where they dim the lights and play soft music to give the kids a sensory-friendly experience
- Malls with bustling crowds, bright lights and loud caroling can create an upsetting sensory overload for children with autism
- An advocacy group has created Santa Cares events, geared towards special needs kids
- For the events, malls open early, lights are dimmed and music is played softly
- Each Santa is trained to interact with children who have special needs such as waving rather than hugging to a child sensitive to touch
It’s that time of year when parents bring children to malls across the US to meet and take photos with Santa Claus.
However, crowds of holiday shoppers, bright festive lights and loud carols can be overwhelming for autistic kids, many of whom have sensory sensitivities.
So Autism Speaks, a non-profit, has teamed up with Cherry Hill Programs to create Santa Cares events across America.
Malls hosting these events will open early before crowds arrive, lights will be dimmed and the music will be lowered so special needs children will have a quieter, less stressful environment in which to visit Santa.
Each Santa is trained to interact with children who have special needs and how to take cues from parents about a child’s preferences.
A group has created Santa Cares events in malls across America, geared towards special needs kids. Pictured: A Santa plays with a special needs child
The mall opens early, lights are dimmed and music is played more softly to created a sensory-friendly event. Each Santa is trained to interact with children who have special needs Pictured: A Santa plays with a child in a wheelchair, left, and a Santa at the Cielo Vista Mall in El Paso, Texas, right
This includes lying on the floor to make the sure the child doesn’t feel threatened or waving as opposed to hugging a child sensitive to touch.
As a single parent of a child with autism, it is difficult to provide ordinary opportunities for my daughter…[this allowed] my little girl to experience the magic of Christmas
Anonymous mother who brought her daughter to a Santa Cares event
Families can also reserve times to visit St Nick so that they don’t have to wait in a long line.
‘Our goal is to create a more inclusive world for people with autism, and events like this make such a meaningful impact in helping families feel comfortable, understood and accepted,’ Dr Valerie Paradiz, vice president of services and supports at Autism Speaks, said in a statement.
People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have a hard time communicating and with behavior.
The developmental disorder encompasses several conditions – including autism and Asperger’s syndrome – and symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Children are usually diagnosed by age two after they exhibit signs such as reduced eye contact, not responding to their name and performing repetitive movements.
In extreme cases, children need daily routines, may be difficult to communicate with, not react well to touch or sounds and have trouble learning basic skills and behaviors.
Families can also reserve times to visit St Nick so that they don’t have to wait in a long line. Pictured: A Santa sits with a child on his lap during a visit
A total of 747 Santa Cares events are being held at 582 malls in the US and Canada. Pictured: A Santa at the Burlington Mall in Burlington, Massachusetts
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 59 children has ASD.
Boys are much more likely – up to four times – to have the condition than girls.
This year, the program is sponsoring 747 Santa Cares events in in 582 shopping centers and malls throughout the US and Canada
And Autism Speaks and Cherry Hill Programs will be running Bunny Cares in the spring, a similar experience during the Easter season.
‘As a single parent of a child with autism, it is difficult to provide ordinary opportunities for my daughter,’ one mother wrote of the event.
‘You helped create that opportunity. It was a special moment I will cherish. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for allowing my little girl to experience the magic of Christmas.’