‘Twas two weeks before Christmas and all through the mall, not a sound was to be heard, nothing at all. Decorations were hung and children poured in, where Sensitive Santa greeted them.
On Dec. 8, Cottonwood Mall hosted Sensitive Santa, an event specializing in children with sensory disabilities meeting Santa Claus in a controlled setting.
“Santa is for everyone. But for children and families with special needs, seeing Santa can bring on stress, anxiety and even panic.
“For those on the autism spectrum and those with related sensory sensitivities, a Santa visit can mean crowded spaces, long lines and a swirl of competing noise that can create an over-stimulating and upsetting environment,” said Marketing Director of Cottonwood Mall Tarah Soward.
The event is hosted before the mall opens to create a calmer environment. Music throughout the mall is turned off, along with escalators.
At the event, elf guides provide sensory-friendly activities, Soward said.
Albuquerque resident Jenn Pascarella brought her family to meet Sensitive Santa. Her youngest son, Ethan, has severe autism, with sensory processing disorder; he is also partially deaf and speech-delayed, Jenn said.
“In a nutshell, without this event, Ethan won’t go see Santa. In the mall, there is too much light, there is too much sound, there is too much activity; it’s just too much,” she said. “I tried last year and he ran screaming. He just took off.”
Santa Claus — he insisted that’s his real name — said he is aware of each parent’s needs and knows how light, sound and unfamiliar surroundings can be stressful.
“Every child, regardless of ability, deserves the same opportunity to visit Santa and feel connected during the holiday,” he said.
Jenn said throughout the event, she was holding back tears of joy. Ethan was running across a gingerbread hopscotch and played with Santa and other children.
“Just to see him enjoying himself and having fun and not scared of Santa was just the best thing ever, for him and me as a mom to see that there are ways for him to see Santa,” she said.