Silent Santa: Children with autism enjoy quiet, calm visit with St. Nick

Kim Belisle normally wouldn't be in a shopping centre with her children around Christmas, but Sunday morning was different.

'Normally we wouldn't attempt a mall for the sounds and all the sensory experiences'

Zach Belisle (left) and his brother Luke visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus. (CBC)

Kim Belisle normally wouldn't be in a shopping centre with her children around Christmas, but Sunday morning was different.

Kim and her husband Denis were at Londonderry Mall with their boys Luke and Zach for a special Silent Santa visit organized by Autism Edmonton. 

The event was a chance for about 40 children living with autism to enjoy time with Santa in a quiet and sensory-friendly environment.

"It's a lovely experience because normally we wouldn't attempt a mall for the sounds and all the sensory experiences," Kim said.

Luke has autism and for him, visiting Santa under normal conditions "would just be sensory overload," his mother said.

"It could mean just not being able to cope at all — lots of screaming and yelling and not being physically able to be in that environment. Or sometimes Luke will just absolutely shut down and it's like he's not there — it's just too much for him."

This is the second year Autism Edmonton has put on Silent Santa. Sunday's event started at 9 a.m. before the stores opened and wrapped up before 11 a.m.

"The mall turns down the noise, they keep the lights at a minimum, " said Brooke Pinsky, a support services manager with the organization.

Comforting environment

"The children's families are able to make an appointment so the children don't have to wait in line quite as long, and it generally makes for a much more positive meaningful experience with Santa," Pinsky said.

Large crowds, loud noises, and bright lights can cause anxiety for children with autism.

This was the second year that the Belisles have attended Silent Santa.

"It's just a wonderful experience to be able to give them a chance to be just an everyday kid and to be able to enjoy the same things that all kids do," Kim said.

For Carlton Clark and his family, Sunday's visit was a first.  Clark's son Cael, 8, has autism and the family is adapting to his needs.

'To keep him settled is the main thing'

Clark was able to set up an appointment and get his son in to visit Santa within a couple of minutes, much different than a visit during regular mall hours. 

"To keep him settled is the main thing, and [with] this we could get in and waited, like, two minutes or so ... it was great, " he added. 

Nancy Jarnevic, retail manager for Londonderry Mall, said every child should have a visit to remember with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

"A lot of these families, this is the very first time they've had the chance to bring their children to see Santa because it's too stressful with all the lights, the music, the crowds the waiting in long lines," Jarnevic said.

"So with this event we're able to have a special appointment for the families that require it and they can have that special memory with Santa." 

Londonderry Mall is hosting other Silent Santa events on Dec. 9 and 16.

Anyone interested can contact the mall administration to make an appointment to visit between 9 a.m. and 10:50 a.m.