While crowds of festive shoppers, bright lights, and cheery music can make snapping a photo with Santa at the mall fun for some children, those same things can be overwhelming for those with sensory issues, like those that often accompany autism. This Christmas, however, Westfield shopping centers in Australia are hoping to give every child the opportunity to meet Santa Claus in a joyous and enjoyable way. For that reason, Westfield is offering kids with autism "Sensitive Santa" visits at malls across the country.
"We're offering a Sensitive Santa experience so that families can visit our Christmas wonderland and have their photo taken in a relaxed environment, tailored to children with sensory challenges," Westfield said in a recent press release. "These calm and comfortable photography sessions are run before stores open, when the centre is quieter, to create a relaxed and sensory-friendly Santa experience."
As a developmental disability, autism spectrum disorder can cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The American Psychiatric Association explains that individuals with autism may experience "the sensory aspects of the world" in different or extreme ways, including being overwhelmed by the loud noises or bright lights found in most shopping centers.
Families who need to avoid the hustle and bustle of the shopping mall at Christmas but would still like to give their child the chance to meet Santa, can pre-book a time to enjoy a quieter moment with Old Saint Nick that doesn't involve waiting in long lines. "With a booked time slot and no need to wait in a queue, families can take their time to enjoy their moment with Santa," Westfield said in its press release.
For children with autism, being able to skip standing in a long line can sometimes mean the difference between a special holiday memory and distress. "Offering shorter wait times or scheduled appointments to meet Santa in an accepting and understanding environment is a great way for autism families to create lasting holiday memories," Lindsay Naeder, senior director of mission delivery at Autism Speaks, which is hosting its own sensory-friendly Santa experiences for children with Autism in the United States and Canada, tells Romper.
But along with happening before the mall's stores open and crowds gather, Westfield has said that "Sensitive Santa" meetings will also include dimmed lights and lowered music. Furthermore, children will be given the choice of sitting next to Santa or on his lap during their meeting. Parents and caretakers have also been encouraged by the shopping center brand to notify staff if there's anything they might be able to do in order to make their child's experience with Santa go smoother. "We will accommodate any special requests as best we can," Westfield said.
Westfield Australia is also helping parents prepare their children for their Santa experience through a short story about what happens when meeting Santa that can be either downloaded or printed. It mentions what types of questions Santa might ask them and how there will be a flash when their photograph is taken. But because dates for "Sensitive Santa" experiences are limited, families in Australia are encouraged to check with their local Westfield shopping center for available times and book well in advance.
Romper has reached out to Westfield USA to see if any of the brand's U.S. shopping centers plan to offer similar "Sensitive Santa" experiences to children with autism or other sensory disorders but did not immediately hear back.
Meanwhile, in North America, Autism Speaks, the United State's largest autism advocacy organization, has partnered with Cherry Hill Programs to offer private, sensory-friendly visits with Santa at more than 750 shopping centers in the United States and Canada. Starting Nov. 24, families can check online here to see if a "Caring Santa" will appear near them.
"We know for some children with autism, the holiday tradition of going into a busy mall and an unfamiliar space to meet Santa may present a lot of sensory challenges," Naeder of Autism Speaks tells Romper. "Visiting with a caring Santa that has been trained on how to support the autism community allows for a calmer, more stress-free way to experience this special holiday milestone."