Sensitive Santa program helps youngsters successfully visit Santa

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Santa Claus had a chance to visit with Hannah Kielo during the Sensitive Santa evening at the Swift Current Mall on Dec. 10.

Santa Claus made a special visit on Dec. 10 with a special group of children who do not always have the capacity to experience a visit with Jolly Old Saint Nick.

Sitting on Santa's lap during the Christmas season is something most parents take for granted, but for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder this Christmas tradition can be overwhelming and uncomfortable.

Hosted at the Swift Current Mall last Tuesday, the Sensitive Santa event took into account the needs of these children by dimming the lights, not playing Christmas music, and providing one-on-one time without long line ups.

The event was proposed by Arden Fiala, the Saskatchewan director for Autism Society Canada, who had heard about the program from a fellow director with the Autism Society of Canada.

"Some children have never had a successful visit with Santa, because if Santa even has aftershave on, that could be enough to trigger that the child wouldn’t even want to be next to Santa, or if Santa was a smoker, or if they hear children screaming," Fiala said after the hour long Sensitive Santa visits which were enjoyed by 11 children. "It was also great to see the parents watching their children with Santa, because I think it was a win-win for everyone. To give that gift of time, for Tim (Bugera, Swift Current Mall Manager) and Santa to make that extra special visit to the mall, and I know his time is valuable too, that was the best gift that he could give for not only the children that saw Santa last Tuesday, but as well as the parents and the caregivers that got to see their children have that successful visit."

"Sensitive Santa was started to optimize the visit with children especially on the spectrum, or children that have high sensitivity to sensory issues, so for light, sights, smells, sounds, or children waiting in line. Sensitive Santa, we ensure he is a non-smoker. Tim turned down the lights at the Mall, the Mall was actually shut down, so between Tim Bugera and Santa, they gave an hour of their time to dim the lights, no music was playing. The children came in as an appointment so they didn’t have to wait. Santa was very well aware of this, so if a child wanted to stand next to Santa or get a little closer, it was all geared up for optimum success, so that these children could actually have a visit with Santa that was quiet and stressless."

Fiala, who knows the families involved through the Parent Support Group, felt this was a special Christmas gift for the families thanks to the hard work of others.

"I’m connected with these parents through the Support Group, so to see them experience their child having that successful visit, that calm, quiet visit with Santa that most parents kind of take for granted when they can just take their child to the Mall, it was great. I don’t even know many other words, because it was just a great gift that we received from Tim and Santa that the opportunity was provided."

She also thanked the man in the red suit for his special attention to the children.

"This Santa, he was so great with the ones that were very shy. He wasn’t even on his chair, he stood up, gave high fives, talked to them, and slowly started getting them towards sitting down with him. It was all geared up towards whatever the child wanted. If you didn’t want to sit with Santa, you didn’t have to."

Plans are already in place to have a second Sensitive Santa event in 2014, with all involved expressing their desire to be involved for another year.

"One of the added bonuses was Santa and Tim were also given information on autism awareness, so that’s why I say it was a great evening just to even know that Santa now knows what autism is."

Additional information about the Parent Support Group call Fiala at 306-297-3931 or Lisa at 306-773-0171. For more details about the Saskatchewan Families for Effective Autism Treatment (SaskFEAT) visit online www.saskfeat.com or on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Saskfeat

Organizations: Autism Society of Canada, Parent Support Group

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Swift Current

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