Nova Scotia

'A powerful thing': Silent Santa brings Christmas cheer to people with autism

A program at Sunnyside Mall in Bedford, N.S., that allows people with autism to meet Santa in a sensory-friendly environment is now in its sixth year and is gaining popularity.

Program at Sunnyside Mall in Bedford now in sixth year and gaining popularity

Sherry Hardy's son, Cole, who has autism, is shown visiting Santa at Sunnyside Mall in Bedford, N.S., three years ago. (Roberta Riley/Sunnyside Mall)

Sherry Hardy's son, Cole, loves Santa Claus, but visiting him at the mall has always been difficult.

"It's a pretty frustrating thing for a child with autism to go through," Hardy said.

"What looks like a complete selfish tantrum to somebody who's not aware is actually a meltdown because there's so many sensory things happening."

Five years ago, she found a way to make her son's Santa wishes come true when she learned of the Silent Santa program at the Sunnyside Mall in Bedford, N.S.

The program allows children and adults with autism to visit Santa in a sensory-friendly environment.

Parents can arrange visits

Parents can arrange visits with Santa in an unused store at the mall that's decorated with two Christmas trees and a comfy seat. The lights are dimmed and wrapping paper is placed over the window for privacy.

Each visit lasts around 10 minutes, allowing guests to take their time with Santa and get a picture taken.  

"The Santa that happens to be at the Silent Santa at Sunnyside Mall is very patient, very sweet, very kind," Hardy said. "The lady taking the photos is the same."

Silent Santa's setup at Sunnyside Mall. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Halifax Shopping Centre, Mic Mac Mall and the Truro Mall are also hosting Silent Santa visits this year.

Cole, now 14, had his latest visit with Santa at Sunnyside Mall earlier this month. Hardy said her son has "always loved Santa."

"He's one of the first Christmas figures he's taken to," Hardy said. "I say he's non-verbal, but when he's highly motivated he will say spontaneous words, so he has said 'Danta' for Santa pointing at Santa — it's kind of a powerful thing."

Sensory-friendly Christmas tips

Taylor Linloff, a woman with autism from Port Hawkesbury, N.S., said Silent Santa programs are a great idea.

"It being sensory-friendly, it makes it more accessible for them to be there and enjoy that time," she said, adding she wished such a program existed in her area.

Linloff said the holidays can be an overwhelming time for people with autism.

She said there are things people hosting events this season can do to make it more enjoyable for people with autism. Hosts should find out if there are any dietary restrictions in advance and be mindful with decorations.

Silent Santa is held in a vacant store at Sunnyside Mall. The windows are covered with wrapping paper for privacy. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

"Moving toys, motion-activated lights or music can trigger a sensory panic response," Linloff said.

"A big sensory issue is flashing or bright lights and loud or complex sound. So if possible, it would be really good for people to turn down the holiday music to a lower level."

Sunnyside Mall has more than 150 Silent Santa visits scheduled for this year.

The program started in 2014 after a staff member and a frequent mall customer who both have children with autism came up with the idea.

"It is important for us to recognize how important it is to have safe spaces in public areas, and something that might seem very accessible to you won't be for everyone," said Jill Mason, Sunnyside Mall's marketing manager.

"So Silent Santa, it is a really wonderful cause and we're very happy to continue this program."

Silent Santa is meant to allow people to visit the big man in red in a sensory-friendly environment. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Money made from photos with Santa is donated to Autism Nova Scotia, Mason said.

Mason said there are still spots available to visit Santa at Sunnyside Mall. Those interested just need to call ahead.

The last day for Silent Santa visits is Dec. 21.



Anjuli Patil


Anjuli Patil is a reporter and occasional video journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team.


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