The Autism Speaks foundation just held a second year of its Caring Santa program that uses specially trained Santas to allow children with autism a chance at visiting Santa. Not only do they train Santa to work with children who may be non-verbal or have other signs of autism, but the shopping malls themselves are changed to cater to the children.
Lisa Goring, executive vice president of Programs and Services for Autism Speaks, said crowded malls can normally be an overwhelming place to many children with autism. The foundation partnered with Simon Malls to offer the program at 120 locations in the U.S. in late November and early December.
"For some they may have trouble waiting in line and some sensory challenges," she said pointing out children with autism can be overwhelmed by the lighting or smells in a crowded place as well. "This is a way to really provide families with an environment that is so welcoming."
Goring explained that the malls set up times to visit Santa when it was less crowded and that dimmer lighting and quieter music was used as well.
"As part of the training, Santas know that they may not have verbal ability...they can use a communication system," to talk to Santa, Goring explained.
Although the Caring Santa program ended this season's run last Sunday, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the Autism Center of Tulsa is working with a local mall to bring in a Sensitive Santa, as part of a separate program, this Sunday.
Jennifer Sollars-Miller, co-director of the center, said parents set up a specific time so that they don't have to wait in line. Each child gets a free picture at the end and a special ID that identifies they have autism.
"At the event last year, just the patience and understanding and not expecting the child to talk the whole time," was helpful, said Sollars-Miller.