Special needs children visit 'soothing' mall Santa

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AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Santa delivered a calmer, quieter Christmas experience to the boys and girls who paid him a visit on a recent Sunday morning at Belden Village Mall.

The holiday sights and sounds of a typical encounter with a mall Santa were dimmed and muted.

No blaring Christmas tunes. No overhead lights. And no long lines.

The result?

"No meltdowns," said Tiffany Elliott of Canal Fulton with a smile after her three children posed with Santa.

Her son, Lucas, 5, has attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and is being tested for autism.

"He can't stand still for two seconds," she said. "Having a bunch of noises in the mall, that would be exhausting."

For youngsters with autism and other special needs, the Soothing Santa program enables them to enjoy a childhood tradition without the typical crowds.

This holiday season marks the second year the mall has offered visits with St. Nick to children with special needs by appointment during designated times before the mall stores open. Overhead lights and music are turned off for the event.

About 45 children with special needs and their siblings participated that morning in the first of two Soothing Santa sessions being offered at the Jackson Township mall. The second already was filled.

"If it allows Mom to get a picture with all her kids with Santa together, that's a nice opportunity," said Gina Bannevich, Belden Village's marketing director. "We know the long lines can provide extra anxiety. Avoiding that long line is a big deal."

Bannevich knows firsthand how challenging it can be to bring a child with a developmental disability to a crowded, noisy mall to see Santa. Her 8-year-old son, Dominick, is autistic.

"There's not a lot of opportunity for families like ours to do the traditional, typical things because of the sensory overload," she said. "It was something I thought would be a nice experience."

Several other malls owned by Belden Village's corporate parent, Starwood Retail Partners, also are offering the Soothing Santa visits this Christmas season.

Santas employed by Cherry Hill Photo to work in the mall go through special training to work with all children, including those with special needs, Bannevich said.

The Soothing Santa program at Belden Village is supported by Akron Children's Hospital and the Golden Key Center for Exceptional Children, a school in Canton that provided "sensory tables" and other activities for the children during their visit.

For children with autism and other sensory processing issues, long lines and loud sounds are overwhelming, said Children's occupational therapist Heather Reiss.

"With the sound, overhead music blaring and the hustle and the bustle, if you are sensitive to sounds and now you're put in an environment where it's just amplified, your body is put into a state of alarm," she said. "The child who's screaming isn't just having a tantrum, but their little systems are on overdrive. It's so challenging because you want your child to be able to experience those typical traditions.

"With the Soothing Santa, eliminating the long lines and decreasing the auditory input, that all is helping eliminate one more step that the child doesn't have to process."

Carlee McTighe, 7, of North Canton waved enthusiastically and yelled, "Hi, Santa!" when she was called over to meet St. Nick.

"Hi, Carlee," responded Santa, aka Ken Jackson. "What do you want for Christmas?"

"Presents!" she said with a grin.

Lisa McTighe said it would be challenging for her daughter, who has Down syndrome, to wait in a long line when the mall was open to see Santa.

"I think for so many families who have children with special needs it's too overwhelming when the mall is open," she said. "There's too much chaos."


Information from: Akron Beacon Journal, http://www.ohio.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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