'Sensitive Santa' offers calm visits for children with autism

For a child with autism, paying a visit to Santa at the local mall is no easy endeavour. The bright lights, loud noises and bustling crowds can trigger feelings of intense anxiety, ruining what might otherwise be a happy encounter with Saint Nick.

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But a shopping mall in North Bay, Ont. is taking extra steps to make Santa available to children with autism, by offering parents the opportunity to book a one-on-one appointment with the jolly old elf in a quiet and non-threatening setting.

"Sensitive Santa" meets with children for 10 minutes before the Northgate Shopping Centre opens, when the lights are dimmed and the crowds are non-existent, so children with autism can share in a Christmas tradition many other kids take for granted.

The Sensitive Santa program is run by Autism Ontario North East every year, and has been growing in popularity. Twenty-four families have visited Sensitive Santa this year, up from 16 visits last year.

Creedance Sarazin, 7, got a chance to meet with Santa this week, thanks to the autism-friendly initiative.

"It's so nice," his mother, Tasheena Sarazin, told CTV Northern Ontario. Sarazin said she's glad Creedance can "experience things that other children get to." She said her son hasn't been able to visit Santa in four years, because the mall is "just too much for him."

"I don't know how many times we've walked past Santa because I know there's no way he's going to be able to wait in line, so the appointment part of this morning is absolutely perfect," she said.

Autism is a life-long disorder with symptoms ranging from mild to severe. However, most individuals with the disorder experience difficulty with communicating, forming relationships and navigating social situations.

Behaviour therapist Erin Emon says those with autism are also particularly sensitive to overstimulation from their environment. "For a lot of these children it is loud noises, bright lights. It can be large crowds, so bringing them in before all of the activities of the mall get going can really help with that."

Tasheena Sarazin was overcome with emotion upon seeing her son with Santa, and had to wipe tears from her eyes while speaking about the visit. "Everyone's so wonderful here," she said.

With files from CTV Northern Ontario


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