Calgary mall hosts sensory-friendly Santa photo shoot for special needs kids

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WATCH: Children with special needs were invited to take photos with Santa during a sensory-friendly portrait session on Sunday. Michael King reports – Nov 25, 2018

Visiting Santa is a yearly tradition for many families, but the crowds and music can be overwhelming for kids with special needs.

South Centre Mall is making sure that every child has a chance to sit with Saint Nick without any added stress.

Michelle Noble, the mall’s manager of guest experience, said her team turns the music off, dims the lights and gives each family plenty of time for photos.

“We offer a quiet, sensory-friendly environment for children with special needs,” said Noble. “It’s less stressful so that kids and families can come visit Santa.”

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Kierra Irvine brought her two children for the special session so that her daughter Evanna could meet Santa. Irvine said the lack of crowds makes it possible for her to bring Evanna out.

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“We can come here and not be rushed and take our time with Santa,” said Irvine. “We’re not just [the] next child, we can actually sit down.”

South Centre staff go through special training with Autism Calgary to make sure that children feel comfortable. Even Santa goes through a refresher course.

“Santa’s come by it naturally,” Santa said, “but the support team is great. They make everyone feel welcome and that’s what it’s all about.”

Noble adds the event is open to all children with special needs, and if the child can’t sit with Santa, he’ll still make sure they leave with a positive memory.

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“Santa will come out and if we can’t get that picture in the chair, then we’ll do something unique and different,” said Noble. “We’ll try and snap the photo for the family and get the children to engage with seeing Santa.”

Irvine was surprised with how well the photo shoot went and said the successful visit could be the start of a new Christmas tradition.

“[Evanna] was actually loving Santa and snuggling,” said Irvine. “I was trying to take her away from Santa and she didn’t want to leave, she was actually quite comfy.”

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Families who register for the event receive a sensory story to read to their kids before coming to the mall.

Noble said it helps to tell children what to expect before they come.

This holiday season, 150 families are expected to take part in the three sessions.

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