'It was really joyful:' Silent Santa program helps kids with autism meet Father Christmas
'If you're a child who is very sensitive to a lot of sensory input, it can be just impossible'
The little girl, perched on on Santa's lap, smiles and squeals in delight at his white whiskers and rosy cheeks.
"She was sitting on my lap and she wanted to play patty cake so I played patty cake with her. To me, it was really joyful, really joyful," said the mall Santa. "It's little things like that that make it precious and there were a lot of them."
It's a familiar holiday scene, but there was something different about this encounter with Saint Nick at Edmonton's Londonderry Mall.
The lights are dim, the music hushed. And the children waiting to meet Santa have been ushered inside before the mall long before it opens to shoppers.
It's part of a new initiative to help children with autism take part in the holiday tradition.
The Silent Santa program allows children who may struggle with the sights and sounds of a busy shopping mall to meet Father Christmas in a calmer and more controlled environment.
"We all know getting into the mall at Christmas time is tough for everyone, but if you're a child who is very sensitive to a lot of sensory input, it can be just impossible," said Lauren Rollett, Autism Edmonton's support services manager. "You might not make it past the front door.
"Sounds can be too loud. Lights can be too bright. It almost feels hostile to go in that space and any joy of meeting Santa, that goes out the window because you're just trying to get through it."
On Sunday — when the first group of children were ushered into the mall — Rollett says there were no tears.
The children didn't have to wait in long lines, and enjoyed quiet one-on-one sessions with Mr. and Mrs. Claus.
"We had kids just running right onto Santa's lap. With that softer entrance into the mall, it made a big difference," said Rollett in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.
"Sometimes for these families, the holidays can bring up the times when they're not fitting in. They're not fitting the mould. They don't get to have that classic Santa visit if their child can't cope … so to give that experience to the whole family is awesome."
'It opened my eyes'
The man behind Old Saint Nick, Cecil Hawley and his wife Dana has done events at the mall for the past three years, but this is the first time he participated in a Silent Santa program.
He and Mrs. Claus were given training prior to Sunday's inaugural event of the season to ensure everything went smoothly.
"I approach them very calmly and I talk to them softly. And I don't give any big 'Ho Ho Hos' because I don't want to scare them," said Hawley.
"Everything is calm for them. And we give more time for those children than we do the other children because they need the time to warm up to you."
'It's so wonderful'
After years of meeting children, and compiling their wishlists for the elves back at the North Pole, Santa said the experience brought home the spirit of the holidays.
"It opened my eyes a little more for these children," Hawley said.
"It's so wonderful. The children are so great and to see the sparkle in the eye and smile on their face when they see me, it's precious."
Interest in the Silent Santa program has been so high the mall has added a third session.
The second Silent Santa session will be held at Londonderry Mall Sunday, Dec. 4 from 10 to 11 a.m. while the third will be held Sunday, Dec. 11 from 10 to 11 a.m.