Something really nice happened recently in Tampa. The West Shore Plaza Shopping Mall welcomed autistic children and their families to a special holiday event just for them
Many autistic children find the noise and crowds at the malls during the Christmas season very stressful, so the West Shore Plaza Mall hosted a Sensitive Santa event in a sensory friendly environment on the first Sunday in December.
Other shopping malls throughout the country are doing the same thing; helping children with autism enjoy some of the holiday celebrations and traditions most families take for granted. One especially important custom that autistic children frequently miss out on, is having their picture taken with Santa Claus.
With approximately 1-3 out of 150 children diagnosed with some form of Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD), it can be difficult for families to enjoy regular holiday events. Children with autism generally do not communicate well and have difficulty with changes in their routine, so few families subject their kids to the noise and crowds at the holiday shopping malls.
Autistic Spectrum Disorders are a range (spectrum) of neurological disorders that interfere with communication and interpersonal relationships. There can also be obsessive repetitive behavior.
The condition is usually diagnosed by age 3. The causes of ASD are still unknown. There is no proven cure but the condition can be managed. Some children are at the low functioning end of the spectrum, unable to break out of their own world.
Some children at the high functioning end of the spectrum who have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, may be able to lead independent lives eventually, but may be awkward in their behavior and social interactions.
The Dayton Mall in Ohio came up with the Sensitive Santa idea three years ago in order to give autistic children a chance to have their picture taken with Santa. The usual holiday mall, with its bright lights, crowds, music, bell ringers, racing children and big loud Santas, made it almost impossible for families with autistic children to visit during regular mall hours.
Mall officials came up with a plan to open the mall early on the first Sunday in December from 8-10AM just for autistic children and their families. They would present Christmas activities and Santa in a sensory friendly environment. The event was a huge success and several malls throughout the country have adopted the concept.
The malls open early just for autistic children and their families. Publicity about the event goes out well in advance. The event is free. The visit is anything but typical. All elves and Sensitive Santas are educated to be sensory friendly to the kids.
There are no crowds of shoppers, no loud noises, no bright lights or loud music. A number of sensory friendly activities is on hand so kids can play and meet each other while they wait to see Santa.
Parents are given a number and a form to fill out with the child’s name, 3 things he or she would like for Christmas, and anything else parents want Sensitive Santa to know. The wait is brief and with a little urging most kids are able to get their picture taken with Santa. If a child prefers not to sit on Santa’s lap, he may sit next to him. About 60 families participate.
All activities are free including the photo with Santa. The kids also get a goody bag. Mall officials remark that some parents smile more than the kids as they go home with their precious souvenir picture.
St Pete Times