‘Sensitive Santa’ Meets Kids With Autism

A trip to the mall to sit on Santa’s knee is a special event for families, but the holiday hustle and bustle can be overwhelming for kids with autism. That’s why Northtown Mall in Blaine, Minn., opened its doors early Sunday morning for some low-key “sensitive Santa” time.

“A lot of children with autism aren’t able to have the experience of seeing Santa,” said Northtown’s marketing director Linda Sell, describing the typical bright lights, loud music and long line. “This is our way of helping.”

The mall dimmed the lights and lowered the music volume to make autistic children more comfortable. And instead of waiting in line, kids colored or walked around with their families.

“It’s something very small on our end but it means so much to families, ” said Sell.

An illustrated pamphlet showed families what to expect during their visit — a helpful aid for kids with autism who often rely on routines. And a form filled out by parents in advance gave Sensitive Santa the scoop on their wish lists.

“Its’ such a wonderful event,” said Sell. “It’s heartwarming to see the joy in the kids’ faces, and in the parents.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 10 children is on the autism spectrum.

The event is emotional for parents, some of whom thought they’d never see their kids on Santa’s knee.

“You have things you look forward to with your child,” mom Gena Elverhoy told ABC News affiliate KSTP with a shaky voice. “It’s different, this way, to be able to still have these experiences that you want to have.”

More than 50 kids of all ages attended this year’s event. The mall spreads the word by sending flyers to schools and therapy centers.

“We will continue to do it because obviously there’s a huge demand,” said Sell.

Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a neurologist specializing in autism at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said parents want their children to have the same opportunities as their peers.

“A visit with Santa is one of those things you expect to happen,” he said. “And why should the special needs population not have it?”

Some movie theaters now have special screenings for autistic kids. And Walt Disney World offers special passes that allow them to skip long waits in crowded lines.

“This is our culture recognizing that if the kids can’t fit into the template, the template has to fit the kids,” said Wiznitzer. “It’s happening more and more.”