No Bells and Whistles: Malls Introduce ‘Low-Sensory’ Santa Experiences for Kids with Autism

For many children with autism, the holiday season promise of “merry and bright” can prove all too overwhelming.

Though paying a visit to Santa Claus is a classic tradition for many families each December, kids with special needs can be put off and made uncomfortable by the strong lights, loud music and dozens of other children eagerly awaiting their turn.

With that in mind, many local malls are taking on the role of Santa’s elves, and helping out children with autism by providing an alternate time to sit on Santa’s lap — one that’s devoid of all the hustle and bustle that a typical experience might have.

“For any child, especially a young child, visiting Santa can be kind of a sensory overload for anybody. It’s a lot of colors, a lot of waiting in line, a lot of funny noises sometimes,” Bama Hager, a program advisor with the Autism Society of Alabama, told the Birmingham-based Daily Mountain Eagle.

She added, “The sensory Santa idea is to remove some of that sensory input so that a family with a child with autism or any developmental disability doesn’t have to be too concerned about all of that stimulation.”

Autism Speaks and Cherry Hill Programs have teamed up, too, to bring Sensory-Friendly Santa events to malls across the country, and families from California to New York City can RSVP to attend.

These visits to Santa feature dimmed lighting, soft music, and early hours, so that none of the other stores are open and the mall’s corridors aren’t flooded with noisy holiday shoppers. The Santas are also equipped with different techniques to help them better interact with children with special needs.

The Palisades Center, a mall in West Nyack, New York, has welcomed a special Santa for many years, Keri Cunningham, marketing director for the mall, told The Journal News.

J.R. Vega’s nine-year-old son Elijah has autism, and told the outlet that the program allows for his son to have a normal Christmas experience.

“It’s amazing, and not having to wait in line makes it possible,” he told the News. “It would be impossible otherwise. It would be too overwhelming and too much to handle.”

Similar experiences have popped up in places like Wisconsin, too, where a local art shop recently hosted a Santa Claus event that featured sensory toys, noise-canceling headphones and crafts for each child, ABC affiliate WAOW reported.

The events have even expanded across the border, with Canada’s Southcentre Mall in Calgary hosting a sensory-friendly Santa for three Sunday mornings in December.

“It’s exciting,” mom Kaylee Bushell told CTV News. “We can come, they get to see him, we get to enjoy the moment, and we’re on our way.”

Many children with autism have sensory issues that include both hyper-sensitivities and hypo-sensitives to a wide range of stimuli, including sights, sounds, smells and touch, according to Autism Speaks.

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