For many children this time of year, sitting on Santa’s lap to tell him their Christmas wishes is the highlight of their year. For others, it is a terrifying experience. And for those with autism, the experience can go from bad to worse in a matter of seconds.
Crowded, brightly lit malls playing Christmas music throughout are a scene many know well.
But for autistic children, the scene is full of way too many sensory changes at once.
Erin Deely and her husband knew the crowded malls were too much for their 6-year-old son, Brayden, to handle. They all but abandoned the idea that they’d ever get a picture of him with Santa after his autism diagnosis at age 3.
Three years later, they discovered the Caring Santa program put together by the group Autism Speaks. Located in over 120 malls nation wide, mall Santas and others who play the role are trained to better understand and accommodate children with autism.
Then, kids are provided a secure and calm environment to meet and interact with Santa without the added stress of a typical mall meet-and-greet setting.
For Brayden, the program would allow for him to go to the mall after hours to meet St. Nick without the usual commotion.
Autism Speaks and the Caring Santas created possibility where the Deeleys had assumed there was none. They would finally be able to get the photo they’d wanted for so many years.
“This was our only way,” Erin said. “We wouldn’t get traditional Santa pictures otherwise. For years we didn’t because it was too much for Brayden.”
At first, Brayden was shy and stood at a distance.
But then Santa broke out the musical snow globe, and placed it on the floor in the middle of the room.
Brayden was interested in the snowglobe, and crawled over to play with it. He slowly warmed up to Santa, and soon allowed him to join him on the floor to play.
The most important part of the experience was that Brayden felt safe and comfortable. The program certainly delivered, going above and beyond to make sure that happened.
“He’s not all dressed up in fancy clothes, being put on a strange man’s lap and told to say cheese,” Erin said. “It’s him literally being himself, and Santa getting on his level and accommodating him, rather than the other way around.”
Not only did Brayden get to finally experience Christmas in a fun and accommodating way, but his mom is glad to finally have an unforced Christmas picture of her son where he is genuinely happy.
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