Going to visit Santa Claus can be scary for any child. You're handed off to a complete stranger with a big beard and are told to sit on his lap. As a young kid, you're taught to stay away from strangers, and now your parents are just handing you off.
These feelings of fear are only heightened for some children with autism. The crowds, sounds, and lights can all trigger an emotional response, which can lead to a bad experience. That's why when Erin Deely found out that her son, Brayden, had autism, she and her husband assumed a traditional photo with Santa Claus was never going to happen.
However, thanks to the Caring Santa program, organized by Autism Speaks, Brayden was able to have a Christmas experience he'll remember for a lifetime.
Caring Santa is a "sensory-friendly experience" which allows children to visit with Santa Claus after mall hours, and have one-on-one time with the man in red.
"They let you take all the time you need to let him warm up to Santa, so Brayden started out far away," Deely said. "He knew who Santa was, but he was shy."
"He got down on his stomach and just started playing with him," Deely said. "They didn't event talk to each other, really, they just bonded and played, and Brayden started to be really excited and started looking at him and smiling."
Santa gave Brayden the time he needed to warm up to him, and eventually the young boy felt at home.
"We know for some kids with autism, the idea of going into a mall and an environment they're not used to has a lot of sensory challenges," Lisa Goring, an Autism Speaks executive vice president in charge of programs and services, said.
"This was our only way. We wouldn't get traditional Santa pictures otherwise. For years we didn't because it was too much for Brayden," Deely said. "So to be able to do something that's "˜normal,' like have a traditional photo and a traditional childhood memory is great. Now we can have an actual Christmas picture, and our son feels safe. He's not forced into it. He's not all dressed up in fancy clothes, being put on a strange man's lap and told to say cheese. It's him literally being himself, and Santa getting on his level and accommodating him, rather than the other way around."
In total, Brayden spent about 20 minutes with Santa.
"At the end, Brayden didn't want to leave. He kept saying, "˜More Santa.'"
"It's a great way for families to experience a holiday tradition," Goring said.
Do you think more malls should offer this type of experience?