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Social Issues
Autistic Kids Deserve Some Santa Time, Too. With “Quiet Santa” And “Sensitive Santa,” They Get It
December 17, 2012
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Visiting Santa at the mall is a big part of the Christmas season for a lot of kids - it's a chance to sit down with the big guy and get a few requests in before Christmas morning comes along.

But at this time of year, standing in line at the mall is a noisy, crowded, bright experience. And that means it's basically off limits for many kids with autism - the stimulation is too much for them to handle.

Well, some places in the U.S. and Canada have introduced programs that offer kids who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum a calmer, more soothing way to meet Santa Claus.

In Madison, Wisconsin, an event called "Quiet Santa" gave kids a chance to meet Santa in a friendly environment.

Jim Sheldon helped out by putting on the white beard. He was happy to stand in for the big guy - Jim's son has autism, and his sister, Julie Sheldon, organized the event.

"It's magic, right? Seeing Santa is magic," said Julie. "And I don't think children on the spectrum or others with special needs get that opportunity."

Sheldon says she hopes to repeat the event next year.

Another similar program called "Sensitive Santa" offered kids in Mesa, Arizona the chance to ask Santa for gifts in an autism-friendly setting.

Instead of waiting in line in a noisy mall, kids hang out in a quiet room with crafts, cookies, cupcakes and juice. And Santa is quieter than usual.


Sensitive Santa was played by therapist John Pettingill of Touchstone Behavioral Health, the organization that put together the event at their headquarters in Mesa. Pettingill says he tones Santa down a little for his audience.

"With the children's jumpiness and sensitivity to loud noise... it's not HO, HO, HO, but ho, ho, ho," he told The Arizona Republic newspaper.

Pettingill also says playing Santa to these kids is a rewarding experience.

"I'm the biggest Grinch in the world, but to see the little boys and girls happy is great," he said.


Along with Santa, a couple of elves are in the room. One of them is prevention specialist/interventionist Jonathan Tummavichakul.

"We've seen families in tears, thanking us for this opportunity," Tummavichakul said. "Otherwise, they'd never have a chance to have a picture taken with Santa. Every kid deserves that opportunity."

And some events take place at actual malls.

Coquitlam Centre in BC partnered with the Mediated Learning Centre, Variety - the Children's Charity, and BC Children's Hospital to create a "sensory friendly" environment where kids with mobility issues, sensory processing disorders, or special needs could visit Santa.

The three day event ran from November 25 to November 27.

At Eastwood Mall in Ohio yesterday morning, a Sensitive Santa event was set up by the Autism Society of Ohio.

The lights were kept low, music was turned off, and once again, Santa was gentle and soft-spoken. 56 kids came to the event, and it sounds like it went well.

"I like all the hugs I'm getting," Sensitive Santa said.


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