By Lauren Wanko
Three-year-old William is meeting Santa. It’s something his mom is especially excited about because William is autistic and the typical Santa photo ops are too noisy and crowded for her son. This event though was created for kids just like William.
“Just because he’s different doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t have the same experiences as everyone else and we want him to have a typical childhood and to enjoy the same things we grew up doing,” said William’s mother, Amanda Coyle.
It’s a sensory-friendly Santa event for children with special needs which starts before the mall is open to the public. There are no bright lights, music or crowds. Kids are given toys to play with before meeting Santa.
“Today’s event is a partnership with Autism Speaks and Noerr Programs Corporation,” said NJ Executive Director, Heather Hays. “Autism spectrum disorder affects individuals very differently. Some individuals are profoundly affected, nonverbal, lots of behavior issues, lots of hypersensitivities to stimulus. Some of our individuals don’t look quite as affected in the public but yet they are overwhelmed by a typical Santa event, the lights, the sounds, the different atmosphere, all of the people, the noises. The pressures intensifies some of their behaviors and sensory issues.”
This program — Caring Santa — is offered at Simon Malls.
“Caring Santa started in 2011 at seven Simon Malls,” said Ocean County Mall Director of Marketing Tara Melodick. “In just a few years the program has grown to the extent we’re at 110 malls this year doing Caring Santa.”
Excited to sit next to Santa, 15-year-old Christian dressed up like an elf for the special occasion.
“It’s difficult to take him places and for people to be patient with him and it’s nice, it’s calming, it’s quiet,” said mother Tammi Milius.
Santa seems to enjoy the interactions as much as the kids.
“They’re very loving and very kind and they just need a little extra care and attention,” Santa said.
Seven-year-old Ryan told Santa his Christmas list he said, “Santa is nice!”
Mom Stephanie Page says her son Joshua is non-verbal. She didn’t want her 3-year-old to miss this moment.
“It gives him that extra attention he needs,” Page said.
The Ocean County Mall hosted one of these events last year. Melodick says demand was so high they decided to schedule three events this year. Parents go online to make reservations to see Santa and they’re given a time slot. That way when they get here they don’t have to wait on line.
At the mall, families are given a ticket number which is called just before the Santa meet and greet.
“Because of Will’s difference we miss out on some things. We’re not able to wait on line to see Santa, so this was something that we might not have been able to do,” said Coyle.
Santa added, “Everyone should have the opportunity to have an experience like this.”
For these kids, this Christmas moment is one they may not forget