Silent Santa

By Carol Christian, Connect Contributor

Levi Bexfield, 2, sits quietly with Santa last Sunday during the Sensory Sensitive Santa event. Though not autistic, this proved a quieter and less stressful event for the little guy who isn’t a fan of long lines. Supplied photo

Levi Bexfield, 2, sits quietly with Santa last Sunday during the Sensory Sensitive Santa event. Though not autistic, this proved a quieter and less stressful event for the little guy who isn’t a fan of long lines. Supplied photo

To any one walking past Santa and all the happy children and families visiting with the jolly old soul, it appeared like it was a typical photos with Santa outing.

Except it really wasn’t. It was a Sensory Sensitive Santa event; an event that meant so much to some parents, it moved them to tears as their children, some for the first time, sat happily on Santa’s lap.

Last Sunday, 20 families visited Santa a couple of hours before Peter Pond Mall opened, when all was still calm and quiet.

It was to allow special needs children, many with autism and related sensory issues, to have their photos taken with Santa.

There was no loud music, no boisterous conversations and with the stores still closed, no crowds and all the noise that can go with it, and perhaps the biggest saviour… no lines which would have made a visit to Santa impossible for many of these children. It was a comfortable morning with none of “the looks” glared their way when their children became agitated, overwhelmed with all the noise, lights and line-ups.

And Santa, already trained as sensory sensitive, sat quietly with the children and spoke gently to them.
James and Christine Guerin brought their six-year-old daughter Margaret to the event. It was the first time she had been able to sit and chat with Santa, and have her photo taken. Not only that, but she ran up to him all smiles and hugs.

Christine’s eyes welled at seeing her daughter’s joy.

“She would never have been able to do this otherwise … never,” said Christine, overcome with emotion.
Margaret has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a severe form of epilepsy, and because of that has severe autistic traits.

She has serious sensory issues, added Christine, meaning she is overwhelmed when there is too much stimulation. The line-ups and too many distractions have made visits with Santa impossible.

“We were so surprised,” she laughed watching Margret’s warm response to Santa as she sat and talked with him. “We had no idea how she would react.”

Christine is “Absolutely hoping it will come back.

“It means a lot … we’d never been able to do this, never.”

Families booked five minute time slots to allow time for their children to take everything in and be comfortable.

A couple of families took two slots to allow extra time for their special needs children to get comfortable.

Kirsti Mardell of the Autism Society of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, was the moving force behind this inaugural sensory sensitive event at the mall after seeing a Facebook posting about a similar event in Calgary.

Mardell has three children: Lincoln, 7, who has OCD and ADHD, Quentin, 6, who has autism, and Stephanie who turns five on Christmas.

“I took a snap shot of that and posted it on our group asking if anybody would be interested in this,” recalled Mardell who acknowledged lots of “interested” responses.

The following day, she reached out to Kevin Knight, general manager at Peter Pond, for an appointment to discuss the idea.

He contacted Cherryhill Photos, the agency doing the photos with Santa for the mall. Turns out the agency already used sensory sensitive Santas so the local version of the event was a go.

“When Kirstie made me aware there was a need for this, there were lots of reasons to say yes and none to say no,” explained Knight. “Although I myself am new to Fort McMurray, I am aware that Peter Pond Mall has a great tradition of supporting the community and I am happy to continue this in any way I can.”
Everything went very well, said Mardell.

“The overall comments were about the Santa and how amazing he was with our children, and patient and understanding of the parent’s request,” she pointed out.

She mentioned a family new to Canada from Australia and enjoying their first winter here. They have five children all with special needs. Santa held their eight-year-old daughter, even holding up her head – she doesn’t have muscle control – so she could be facing the camera while her other four siblings sat around her and Santa.

“It was beautiful.”

Given the success of this inaugural event, Mardell plans to be back next year with the Sensory Sensitive Santa event with hopes of making it a two-day event. The mall has also suggested the group return for Easter Bunny photos in the spring.

“So we are going to do that and continue to work with the mall to make these events available to our special needs community,” noted Mardell.

For more information on the autism society and sensory sensitive events, visit them on Facebook: Autism Society of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, or email autismsupport@autismrmwb.org.

– Connect Weekly –