When parents take their kids to visit Santa, they generally expect their kids to have a fun time. Yet kids aren’t always gracious for their chance to visit the man in red—it can be a scary experience to be left alone with a stranger.
It can be even worse for kids with autism. Autistic kids are easily overstimulated. Bright lights, loud repetitive music, big crowds, and talkative people are far more painful to them than to neurotypical people.
So, throwing them all together in one place and adding Santa into the mix is enough to make them want to curl into a ball and get away from it all.
When Erin Deely and her husband found out their son, Brayden, was autistic, they abandoned all hope of getting a traditional snapshot of him on Santa’s lap. Yet thanks to Autism Speaks’s Caring Santa program, the 6-year-old was able to enjoy some quality time with Santa after hours, so he didn’t have to contend with the crowds or music. What’s more, this Santa was specifically trained to handle autistic children.
“They let you take all the time you need to let him warm up to Santa, so Brayden started out far away,” Deely told TODAY. “He knew who Santa was, but he was shy.”
A few minutes passed and Brayden still didn’t want to come to Santa. So Santa tried a new approach. He took a musical snow globe, put it down on the floor, and waited in his chair to see what Brayden would do. Soon Brayden crawled over to the snow globe and started to play with it. Then, Santa made his next move.
“He got down on his stomach and just started playing with him,” Deely said. “They didn’t event talk to each other, really, they just bonded and played, and Brayden started to be really excited and started looking at him and smiling.”
Santa and Brayden kept playing for an entire 20 minutes. Brayden never sat on top of Santa’s lap, but the snapshots his mother took are arguably better because of it.
“Now we can have an actual Christmas picture, and our son feels safe,” Deely said. “He’s not forced into it. He’s not all dressed up in fancy clothes, being put on a strange man’s lap and told to say cheese. It’s him literally being himself, and Santa getting on his level and accommodating him, rather than the other way around.”
The Caring Santa program isn’t just at one mall in North Carolina. There are Caring Santa locations in 120 cities all across the United States, even in Puerto Rico! Deely and her family are quite grateful that a program like this exists and that they’ve been given the opportunity to let Brayden meet Santa in a stress-free environment.
“This was our only way. We wouldn’t get traditional Santa pictures otherwise. For years we didn’t because it was too much for Brayden,” Deely said.
Now, maybe it’s not enough for Brayden as he ended his 20-minute Santa session begging for more!
“At the end, Brayden didn’t want to leave. He kept saying, ‘More Santa.'” Deely said with a laugh.
Since then, he’s gone on to be the poster child for the Caring Santa Event 3 years in a row. So cute!