‘Quiet Santas’ Help Kids With Autism Spectrum Disorder Make Christmas Wishes

Like many children with autism spectrum disorder, 7-year old Donovan usually can’t stand malls and department stores, his senses overwhelmed by the sights, sounds and smells of places packed with people.Donovan Hernandez, far right, enjoys a visit with a “quiet Santa” while accompanied by his sister Devynn, left, and brother Dustin, middle.“If it’s too crowded, too noisy, he wants to go home right away. He’ll cover his ears because of the noise,” Hernandez told TODAY Moms.“And if it’s very, very overwhelming for him, if he starts to panic, he will start to cry and have a complete meltdown.”But nothing bothered Donovan during this visit, which was designed for children with autism and other special needs. The family was invited to come at a specific time before the store opened, so there were no crowds and lines.The store Santa was engaging, but he also understood Donovan’s limits and didn’t push him, Hernandez said.

“It was great. He was able to interact and it brought so much out of him,” she recalled, expressing her gratitude on her blog.“We were able to take an amazing family photo, which we’d never get to do because he’s either holding onto his ears or panicking.”One in 88 kids in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder and many have trouble processing and integrating sensory information, which makes sights and sounds painful, unpleasant or confusing, according to Autism Speaks.So all around the country, shopping centers and other venues are now hosting “quiet Santa” events for children who might otherwise find such visits overwhelming and never get the chance to meet the big guy in a red suit to let him know their Christmas wishes.

Lizette Hernandez and her son Donovan beam after a visit with a “quiet Santa.”

“For a lot of these parents, this is the first time their child has ever met Santa. This is the first time they’ve ever gotten a picture with Santa. It means so much to the families,” said Jacqueline Murray, a spokeswoman for AbilityPath.org, part of a California-based non-profit that advises malls on how to make their spaces “sensory friendly” for kids with special needs.

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