The mall during the holiday season is often a mix of music, bright lights, long lines and noisy shoppers.
For many children with autism, this kind of environment can be overwhelming and incredibly stressful.
But now some malls in North America are using “sensory-friendly” Santa events, specifically catered to the needs of children on the autism spectrum.
The goal is to create an environment with less sensory triggers and have smaller group sizes when meeting Santa, said Sarah Ahmed, director of marketing and communications with Autism Speaks Canada.
“It’s so it can be a joyful experience, not just for the autistic person but also their families.”
The advocacy group works to support those with autism.
One in 66 children between ages five to 17 in Canada fall on the autism spectrum, according to 2018 data from the Public Health Agency.
“It’s a huge, huge number,“ said Ahmed. “There is definitely a need to keep these amazing programs … it’s a lifelong condition.”
Kids with autism may have a range of conditions, from difficulties with communication, social skills and speech, along with sensitivity to stimulants like light, sound, smell and touch.
Behaviours associated with autism can also vary greatly from person-to-person, Ahmed said.
Both genetics and environmental factors could play a role in the development of autism, though exact causes are unknown, according to the Public Health Agency.
“Sensory-friendly” Santa events were created after hearing feedback from families of autistic children, explained Ahmed.
Certain hours are blocked off for the “sensory-friendly” groups and families can reserve space with Santa online.
Autism Speaks also trains Santas in advance on how to meet people with autism.
“We tell [the Santas] what are certain triggers that if they see, they should avoid interacting with [a child] or what’s the best way to sooth them to ensure [they] feel comfortable,” she said. “You have to be cognizant and so aware of how the person is behaving.”
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Ensuring children with autism have more time to meet with Santa is one way to accommodate families, said Courtney Trento, founder of Autism Connections in Guelph, Ont.
“There’s a lot more freedom to just be yourself and not to feel stressed, rushed or judged,” said Trento, who’s organized a sensory-friendly Santa events at Stone Road Mall in Guelph.
The most recent one, on Nov. 24, included 10-minute slots for children to have enough time to ease into meeting Santa.
Trento’s 11-year-old son was first diagnosed with moderate to severe autism at age two. This was the fifth year he was able to meet Santa in a sensory-friendly environment.
“He loves Santa,” she said. “And the fact that he is able to have this moment with Santa really reinforces that.”
To plan for the meeting, Trento tells her son in advance that they are meeting Santa and is also aware of busy parking lots and bright lights in the mall.
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If your child overwhelmed and tends to run away from Santa, this could be an issue if it’s not a sensory-friendly environment, she added. It’s why she starts her Santa meet-and-greets two hours before the mall opens.
“If the mall is packed, and your kid bolts, that’s really scary,” she said. “When the mall is empty … you’re more likely to be able to catch them.”
Through her program in Guelph, 41 kids were able to meet Santa in two days, she said.
She urges others to have compassion for children with special needs in public environments, especially if they weren’t able to attend a sensory-friendly event.
“If they’re battling the lineup, cut them a little bit of slack because it is tough,“ she said. “As a parent you don’t want to impose on everybody else, but you really want your child to have that experience too.”
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