SPRINGFIELD, Va. — For children on the autism spectrum, it’s nearly impossible to have that magical experience of visiting with Santa Claus because of sensory issues that can make it difficult for them to deal with loud noises, bright lights and crowds.
“Many people with autism do have sensitivities to loud noises, crowds, bright lights,” said Fay Painter with Autism Speaks National Capital Area Chapter.
That makes the holiday tradition of getting a picture taken with Santa difficult for children who have autism and other special needs because a trip to see the big man in red usually means long lines, big crowds, noise and bright lights.
Kevin Armentrout who lives just north of Baltimore knows that too well. His 4-year-old daughter Zoe has autism.
“We’ve been to the mall over the last three years,” he said. “We came to this same exact mall last year and we had to leave without seeing Santa. We live about two and a half hours away.”
But this year he brought Zoe back to the Springfield Town Center on Sunday to visit with Santa during the mall’s inaugural sensory-friendly Santa event.
This event is designed for children with special needs. The kids meet with Santa by appointment, so there are no long lines and since the event happens before the mall opens, it takes place in a more subdued and calmer environment.
Kimberly Baldy, marketing director for the Springfield Town Center, said they made some basic adjustments for the event like turning off the music and turning down the lights.
Armentrout was happy that his Zoe finally got to meet and get her picture taken with Santa Claus.
“It was a success,” Armentrout said. “It’s probably more for me than for her.”
Katie Pistun has three kids who are all under 8-years-old and have sensory issues. She is grateful for an event that gives children a chance to have their photo taken with Santa in a sensory-friendly environment.
“I was excited that there was a way for them to come and do this and not have all the sound and all the noise and all the crowds that make it so hard for them every year,” she said.
Painter said last year, this event was held at 160 locations across the U.S., but this year it’s being held at 375 locations.
Baldy definitely wants to bring this event back again in 2018 along with other events that cater to this community.