By now, your social media feeds are likely full of adorable photos of children posed with shopping mall Santa — smiling, screaming, or somewhere in between. For parents of children with autism, however, the standard Santa experience may not be possible. But thanks to an initiative from Autism Speaks and Cherry Hill Programs, children with autism can meet Santa at malls across North America in a sensory-friendly environment.
The events, called "Santa Cares," offer Santa meet-and-greets in a calmer, quieter setting at hundreds of malls across the United States. The participating malls will open earlier in the day, with the music playing more quietly and the lights down a little lower. Additionally, the on-site Santa will be trained to interact with children with special needs, making accommodations like standing behind his chair or laying on the floor to help the children feel comfortable.
"Core to our mission at Autism Speaks is increasing understanding and acceptance of people with autism, and events like these make such a meaningful impact toward helping families feel included and comfortable," Valerie Paradiz, PhD, Vice President of Services and Support at Autism Speaks, tells Romper. "The partnership between Autism Speaks and Cherry Hill Programs year after year continues to not only spread awareness, but also to promote inclusion in communities across the country."
This year, there will be a record number of Santa Cares events with 747 events in 582 shopping centers between the United States and Canada, according to CBS News.
To find a Santa Cares event near you, just have a look at the full event list on the Autism Speaks website.
Paradiz tells Romper there's been an "overwhelmingly positive" response from families who have participated in the events. "We hear from parents and children that they are truly grateful for an opportunity to experience a visit with Santa in a way that works for them," she says.
Cherry Hills Programs also organizes a similar event around Easter, Bunny Cares, that allows children to interact with the Easter Bunny with accommodations. Both of these events benefit Autism Speaks and more than $700,000 has been raised since 2015.
Nothing should stop children from getting to experience the magic of the holidays, and Santa Cares is certainly helping make these memorable moments more accessible.