A visit to the mall to see Santa often includes loud holiday music, shiny decorations, lights, crowds of people, waiting in line, strangers dressed in costume and boxes wrapped so the contents can't be seen.
This chaotic environment turns what many families view as a joyous holiday tradition into a stressful, inaccessible event for a family whose child has autism and can be overwhelmed by it all.
During these visits, "the things that typically developing children just kind of deal with and understand and learn … just by experiencing, kids with autism or with other learning disabilities may have to be specifically taught what is Christmas," Amy Sanderson, director of family and community services at The Autism Collaborative Center at Eastern Michigan University and mom to Owen, who is 11 and is autistic, explains. The sights, sounds and smells of Christmas – "all of those sensory things can be real barriers," she adds.
But some malls are aiming to change that. In Canada, select shopping malls opened earlier than the normal hours of operation for an autism-friendly visit with Santa – plus no extra crowds, lower lights and quiet music, according to a CTV News article.
On Dec. 8, Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor, along with other Simon Malls across the United States, offered a calm and quieter visit with Santa for those with special needs as part of the Caring Santa program.
These events are a step in the right direction, Sanderson, who has taken her son to Briarwood's Caring Santa event in the past, says.
"I think it's great. I think it's the next step in all of the awareness and acceptance efforts that are going on," she notes, adding there are 1 in 88 children who have autism, and these kids "should just have an opportunity to participate in all of the joy of the holiday season."
Sanderson says when she took her son to Briarwood's Caring Santa event last year, "there was just nothing stressful about it." She notes wait times can usually be an issue, but families could RSVP online for a time to visit, and since the mall environment is so unfamiliar during these visits, they had visual materials ready to help explain to children what visiting Santa looks like and is all about.
According to a Dec. 6 press release, Briarwood held their Caring Santa event early in the morning, turned off their music and even had employees from the Washtenaw County Health Department at the event this year to assist where needed.
In years to come, could these types of events increase? As somebody who organizes events at ACC for families whose children have autism, Sanderson says "the next step is to take it out in the community" where people visit, like malls.
"From a mall standpoint, it's customer service, it's public relations, it's community outreach. It makes every bit of sense for them to include people with disabilities," she notes, since these families will likely stay for lunch and go shopping, too. "There's a business case for them to do it."