The lights, people and crowds around Santa at the malls can make the holiday season difficult for children with sensory, physical or other developmental needs. This year, the Mahoning Valley Autism Society is helping families enjoy time with Santa during a special photo event planned for 9 to 11 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 16 at Eastwood Mall in Niles.
"For one day, we will open up early, turn off the holiday lights and music and help kids meet Santa on their terms," says Christa Blasko, marketing director at the Eastwood Mall Complex. Blasko points out the program is modeled after a Sensitive Santa program started in 2008 by a mall in Dayton, but this is the first time it has been offered to the public in the Mahoning Valley. "There will be no lines, no crowds, no music, but lots of fun."
"This modified environment is set up to support the sensory, physical and other developmental needs of kids with all abilities," says Aundra Cika, director of the Mahoning Valley office of the Autism Society of Ohio. For individuals on the autism spectrum, for example, being surrounded by the standard holiday loud music, bright lights and crowds of people can be an extremely difficult experience for both the child and his parents. In addition, since many of children are nonverbal, communicating with the Jolly Old Elf can also be a challenge.
To address these issues, guests are encouraged to sign up in advance and reserve a spot to limit the wait time. Trained elves will be on hand to play games and provide other activities while the children wait to see Santa. Santa Claus knows these friends prefer quiet so he speaks in a soft and gentle voice. There is even a get-to-know-you form that parents can fill out so the Big Guy knows what kids are thinking if they don't want to tell him.
The event is free but reservations are limited and may be made by calling 330-646-4082 or at www.autismohio.org/mahoningvalley.