A ‘sensory-friendly’ Santa experience
St. Nick takes extra care to make kids with autism feel safe and relaxed
Five-year-old Mason Lorenz approached the strange man with the twinkling blue eyes and big red suit with some trepidation.
It took some gentle cajoling — an offer of a book and an extended hand — and Mason eventually sat for photos with Santa alongside sister, Gemma, 6.
“This is good for him,” said mom, Courtney Lorenz, watching from the sidelines as dad, Brandon, snapped some photos. “Before he wouldn’t even go near. This is much easier.”
For many families, taking a Christmas photo with St. Nick is an annual tradition. But for kids with special needs, the experience can be sensory overload with long lineups, blaring music and bright camera flashes.
But on Sunday at Langley’s Willowbrook Shopping Centre, a different Santa came to town, one of a handful of “sensory-friendly” Santa experiences organized by Autism Speaks Canada this season.
The events are for kids with autism spectrum disorder, a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, speech and non-verbal communication, with symptoms ranging from mild to severe.
Families can pre-book sessions, and meet Santa in a calmer, subdued environment, usually before the mall opens.
Langley’s Santa is a pro with eight years of doing “sen- sitive” Santa sessions under his belt.
This Santa walks without bells attached to the back of his boots because they jangle too loudly for most of the kids. Behind his seat, a stack of books and toys help him capture the kids’ attention.
“I try to provide an environment where the children feel comfortable so we can give them the same special moments I’d give anyone else,” he said.
Just before the session officially got underway, a little girl in a red dress approached the gates, covering her ears with her hands.
Santa asked his elves to turn down the overhead music and beckoned her over. He spoke to her in a quiet tone and listened intently as she told him she’d like an Angelina ballerina doll for Christmas.
Over the years, he’s seen the demand for the program grow as families become more aware of it.
Near the camera, a blue jigsaw piece is taped to the wall, a universal logo of autism awareness. It’s also a sign that this Santa is open to interacting and taking photos with kids with ASD or other disabilities.
He’s asked his staff to be on the lookout for parents of kids with ASD who may want to have a moment with Santa. If they’re interested, they can be brought to the front of the line.
“I believe everybody should be treated equally, especially at Christmas time,” he said.
“If I can bring a smile to a child’s face, that’s what I’m here for.”
Carrie Habert, director of marketing for Autism Speaks Canada, said it only takes small changes to make a program like a Santa meet-andgreet more inclusive for everybody.
The sensory-friendly Santa program operates in 15 locations across Canada, including four in B.C. at Willowbrook mall, Central City and Guildford Town Centre in Surrey, and at Oakridge Centre in Vancouver.