For many children with autism or sensory processing disorders, the holidays can be a a difficult time. Events like big family gatherings or visiting Santa in a crowded, noisy mall can be challenging for kids who are easily overwhelmed by stimuli — even if they want to take part in the holiday fun. That's why one man with autism is offering kids sensory-friendly Santa visits this year, allowing visiting children to enjoy plenty of time with Santa without the ruckus of an overcrowded mall.
Kerry Magro, a 29-year-old speaker and activist, has been offering up sensory-friendly Santa visits for the last three years with his non-profit organization, KFM Making a Difference. "Growing up with autism, I had challenges in meeting Santa in public places because I dealt with a lot of sensory challenges," Magro told HuffPost recently. "Giant malls were never really an option for me."
Knowing how difficult it can be to find a calm environment for Santa visits, Magro decided to host his own. During KFM Making a Difference's Santa visits, only eight children at a time visit Santa and they get to do so during a relaxed time span of 30 minutes. Visiting kids will be able to take a photo with Santa and do some arts and crafts, and there will be occupational therapists, speech therapists, and physical therapists on site to help children and their parents.
Magro, who dresses up as Santa for the two-day event, told HuffPost that being able to visit Santa in a quieter environment is a "big deal" for families in his community, saying:
We don’t want them to feel rushed. We don’t want them to feel overloaded. We just want to make it a labor of love.
KFM Making a Difference's Santa visits will take place at Camp Liberty Educational Arts in Jersey City on Dec. 9 and Dec. 10, and the visits are free for all parents and kids attending (although they should reserve their spot in advance). Those who want to help support the event and KFM Making a Difference — which provides scholarships to university students with autism — are welcome to make a donation or volunteer their time.
If you're not able to make it to Magro's event, though, don't worry: there are plenty of other places where you can find sensory-friendly Santa visits. Advocacy group Autism Speaks will be hosting sensory-friendly Santa visits across the country, and you can find a list of participating locations on the organization's website.
According to CNN, one in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, and according to the University of California, up to 16 percent of school-aged children may have sensory processing difficulties. They can have trouble with everything from loud noises to flashes of light, and sensory-friendly Santa visits can help ease the stress of such events.
"When you have a sensory-sensitive child or a special-needs child, you can’t (rush)," one mom visiting a sensory-friendly Santa event, Mickey Teply, told The Chicago Tribune recently. "It’s their time, not your time."
Magro told HuffPost that, when he was growing up, there wasn't much awareness when it came to the needs of children with autism, since it was "a time when a lot of people just really had no idea what autism was." Fortunately, it now seems like both awareness and sensory-friendly events are on the rise, with the number of Autism Speaks Santa events nearly doubling, from 180 last year to 300 this year, according to The Chicago Tribune.
With a little bit of planning, every kid can have a visit with Santa this year — and parents can rest easy knowing that it'll be a stress-free environment for their little one.
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