The twinkling lights, booming carolers and long lines of kids waiting to sit on Santa's knee are all part of an annual ritual for some mall-goers. But for children with autism, those same holiday staples can be overwhelming triggers for stress.
"Our son, Jackson, is severely affected by autism and is nonverbal with multiple other special needs," said J-Jaye Hurley, who lives in Atlanta. "We had not been able to get a picture with Santa since he was 2."
Fortunately, in the past few years, more and more shopping centers are beginning to offer alternative events for families who have children with special sensitivities, or needs. When Hurley learned of the Caring Santa program in the Noerr, Abilitypath and Simon Malls near her home, "for the first time, our family was able to visit Santa, get a great pic, and Jackson really was relaxed and happy to be there," she said. This year will mark the Hurley's third trip to see St. Nick.
The Caring Santa program and other similar series around the country, such as Silent Santa or Sensitive Santa, strip down the typical meet 'n' greet with Mr. Claus to something straightforward and peaceful. The result is quieter, with smaller crowds and less stimuli.
"There's no reason why ASD [autism spectrum disorder] children shouldn't be able to have the same opportunities as other kids, and this gives them the chance to participate in a holiday custom," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a neurologist specializing in autism at University Hospitals' Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland. "If you remove the excessive sensory input for the children, their behavior will be better, they will get more out of it and it's a win-win."
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 88 children is on the autism spectrum. Awareness has lead to increasing modifications at movie theaters, theme parks and other social activity locales to limit sensory overload.
The same considerations can be made when approaching the holidays, said Wiznitzer.
"If you're going to go to a church service, holiday party or shopping, you need to create gradual exposure to the songs that will be played, or offer earplugs," he said. "There are going to be lots of strange noises and people coming through, so part of it is also keeping things quick. Don't spend three hours at your events. Recognize when the child's had enough so that it doesn't lead to meltdowns, tantrums and negative impressions from other people."
For Hurley, who is also an autism response team coordinator for Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization, keeping those kinds of tips in mind and seeking out sensitive environments such as Caring Santa has made a significant difference in her overall holiday experience.
"Not all children with autism need a program like this," she said. "But for so many families like mine, we are very thankful."