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Autism-Friendly Santas Offer Mall Alternatives

Autism-Friendly Santas Offer Mall Alternatives 29412
A growing number of Santas whose mannerisms are more approachable for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are visiting malls, parties, and community centers across the country, The Associated Press reports.  Many of the "sensitive" Santas appear at set hours after the mall has closed, so the lights, noise, and crowds are not overwhelming to autistic children.  The trend is opening the tradition of visits and photos with Santa to families who may have thought their children would never enjoy or even tolerate such an event.  From the Globe:

Many children with autism are especially sensitive to loud noises, jangling music, crowds and unpredictable situations, and some parents say the idea that they could wait patiently in a long line to see Santa is laughable at best.

The Borres tried without success a few times over the years to grab quick snapshots if Ben randomly walked close enough to any Santa they encountered, but with mixed results.

Now, he visits an autism-friendly Santa each December at an informal yearly event that Borre and other autism families hold at a local playground. The sensitive Santa happens to be Ben's grandfather, Ray Lepak, who was compelled to become an autism-friendly Santa for local families after seeing what his daughter's family was experiencing.

"Just because a family has a child with special needs doesn't mean they don't want all the same memories that everyone else does," Borre said. "We all want those same holiday joyful moments; it just has to be approached differently."

One such Santa, Ray Lepak of Manchester, New Hampshire, described his process:

He starts with a few mellow "Ho, Ho, Ho" greetings, watches for those who are intrigued, and smiles or beckons to them to come closer. Many steer clear but watch him, either curiously or warily, while others remain disinterested.

"You'll see them watch Santa out of the corner of their eye, then little by little they'll come closer, then walk away as if you're not there, and come back in a bit," Lepak said. "It's really about following their lead and communicating on their terms."

Some will give him a high five; the braver ones might sit on his lap. At the recent gathering, one child had no interest at all in Santa until he realized that the big guy in the bright red suit was willing to push him on a swing -- and those fleeting moments were enough for the boy's family to snap pictures.

Sensitive Santas have appeared in Connecticut, Ohio, and Minnesota, the article reports.

Image: Santa hat, via Shutterstock