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New Christmas event gives children with autism unique experience

Silent Santa helps children with autism at Edmonton mall
WATCH ABOVE: The staff at Londonderry Mall have come up with a unique way to help children with autism enjoy the spirit of Christmas while also getting a photo with Santa. Julia Wong reports.

A north Edmonton mall hosted a special event Sunday that aimed to provide children with autism a unique and comfortable Christmas experience.

A ‘Silent Santa’ session was held at Londonderry Mall where children with autism were able to meet Santa in a quieter and more sensory-friendly environment before the mall opened.

The event allowed children to not have to wait in a long line, music was kept off and lights were dimmer than usual, so the children could feel more comfortable.

“Just the business of the mall, some kids with autism just can’t handle that anyways.  You couple that with waiting in line and something that they’re unsure about, and it can be really stressful. And obviously a Santa visit isn’t supposed to be stressful for anyone,” Autism Edmonton support services manager Lauren Rollett said.

Those involved with putting on the Silent Santa session received “autism 101” training beforehand. The crash coursed helped make Sunday’s session was a success.

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“We had great success this morning. A couple kids that haven’t had that Santa photo before have been able to get one today,” Rollett said.

Andre Hamilton brought his two sons, three-year-old Apollo and seven-year-old Jayden, to the event. Jayden has autism and is non-verbal.

Hamilton said the family has previously taken pictures with Santa but it has been difficult for Jayden.

“The crowds – that’s what we’re dealing with, waiting in a line-up an hour and a half, two hours – that can be an issue for the autistic condition because of the antisocial nature of autism. Just all the glitz and glamour, the flashing lights, the visual overload can be a challenge as well,” he said.

He said the Silent Santa program is a refreshing change.

“A lot of calm, which allows [Jayden] to ground a really patient Santa who’s definitely engaging him a way that made for an awesome Santa experience for the kids,” Hamilton said.

The father said he is grateful to the mall for organizing the special photo shoot, calling the workers calm and sensitive.

“Gratitude. A bit of joy. Joy that we as a society recognize how prevalent autism is becoming in our society. We’re making the necessary changes to make their lives a little bit easier,” he said.

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The event represents a growing understand of the challenges for those who live with autism and how to help them feel more comfortable.

“It meant so much to us. It really signifies that the community is starting to take note and that that awareness and acceptance that we work so hard towards on a daily basis is starting to trickle down into the community,” Rollett said.

Santa Claus was also a big fan of the experience.

“This was our first time and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I wish we would have had the opportunity to do it years ago,” Santa Claus said.

The man behind Old Saint Nick has done events at the mall for the past three years but this is the first time he participated in a Silent Santa program.

“With these children, you need more time. You have to get up close and personal with them. Let them get to know you before you even try to get them to sit on your lap,” he said.

“Try to find out their dos and don’ts – some like to be touched, some don’t like to be touched; some like bright lights, some don’t.”

Vanessa Julio, marketing coordinator for Londonderry Mall, said demand has been overwhelming for the program.

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“We’ve had a lot of inquiries. It’s been amazing – a lot of support, a lot of interest, very grateful families we’re doing this,” she said.

Julio said interest in the Silent Santa program has been so high the mall has added a third session.

The second Silent Santa session will be held at Londonderry Mall Sunday, Dec. 4 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. while the third will be held Sunday, Dec. 11 from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.