“(Normally) when you walk into the mall and it’s the holiday season, there’s lights and there’s holiday music going on and there’s 500 people walking around with bags, you’re running into people left and right and this is different, because all of that is turned off,” Autism Society of East Tennessee Chapter representative Barbara Talbert said. “You do not have to worry about lights and sounds and people bumping into them and they get to play and they get to actually enjoy Santa.”
The two-hour event is called Sensitive Santa. This marked the third year in a row the Mall at Johnson City opened its doors to children with autism and their families.
“Each year we have new people that are here and just to see the look on their parents’ faces, the kids’ faces, that they actually got to have this experience, it is something other families might take for granted,” Mall at Johnson City Marketing Director Marsha Hammond said.
Sam Newman is now two-and-a-half years old. Last year, his parents tried taking him to see Santa during normal mall hours and it just didn’t work out.
“In our picture album it’s kind of the classic Ralphie moment,” Jaclyn Newman said. “It was a bit of disaster. He just lost it when we got up there. It was overwhelming for him.”
This year they attended the Sensitive Santa event and the change in scenery made all the difference in the world.
“No tears this time and that’s a first ever,” his dad Tom Newman said. “He did really good. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
2012 marked the third year in a row Tonya and Gary Moody took their six year-old son Gabriel to the Sensitive Santa event. His parents say it is the only holiday event he is capable of enjoying. His mom also says there the family doesn’t feel judged.
“This is our only opportunity to see Santa, because any other time society doesn’t understand,” Moody said. “He’s able to be himself. We’re able to be ourselves and feel comfortable doing so. We’re so thankful that they do this every year.”
According to mall officials, attendance has grown every year since the event started. During that same time, so too has the number of kids with autism.
“The most recent CDC numbers are 1 in 88 and just a few years ago we were 1 in 110 and a few years before that we were one in 150,” Talbert said.
- 12 Days of Caring: Sensitive Santa brings gentle touch to visits with autistic children (pennlive.com)
- Sensitive Holiday Events for Children with Autism (seattle.cbslocal.com)