For many children, a highlight of Christmas is going to see Santa and tell him their Christmas wish. However, for many children on the autism spectrum, the shopping centres can be so sensory overloading that it isn’t possible to stay long enough to have their photo taken with Santa.
Autism is a condition that people are born with and have for their whole lives. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in every fifty people in Australia is autistic, meaning that about 164 000 Australians have autism. Autism varies in severity and looks different in every person. People with autism can be good at focusing for long periods of time, can think outside the box and they have their talents and strengths just like every other person. However, similar to everyone else, autistic people may need help in certain areas such as building their social skills and regulating themselves when in sensory overloading places including shopping centres where there can seem to be an infinite number of sounds, people and lights.
Amy Palmer has an eight year old son named Liam who has been diagnosed with autism and sensory processing disorder. She explained that for Liam, the “Christmas crowds are just a massive overload; the bright lights, loud noises, high pitched sounds all become a very distressing and upsetting situation.” Liam had not had a Santa photo since he was one month old and he and his family really wanted to get one, but it wasn’t possible in the shopping environment.
That changed in 2014 when the Autism Association of Western Australia began planning a ‘Sensory Santa session,’ for children on the autism spectrum and other children who found the general Santa photos tricky to handle. The next year this program was trialled in three suburbs across Western Australia which escalated to 14 in 2016, including Ellenbrook, Midland Gate, Bunbury and Mandurah. By the end of 2016, every state in Australia had a Sensory Santa session starting somewhere.
So what exactly is a Sensory Santa session? It is when participating stores have their Santa come in about two hours before the store is open to the general public. The lights are turned down and the music is switched off, allowing for a calm and relaxed environment. Every child gets fifteen minutes with Santa to talk to him, to sit on his knee, and even to play with Santa with the toys provided. Santa follows what the child needs which gives them the perfect time that they were waiting for. It’s because of the Sensory Santa sessions that Liam Palmer finally got the Santa photo that he wanted. “What meant the most to me was that Liam, for the first time, was able to tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas,” Amy Palmer said after the session.
Another autistic boy, Xavier Tuia, age six, was also able to have his Santa photo taken thanks to the Sensory Santa. His mother, Simone Tuia, described that “because Xavier was not interested in sitting up on Santa’s lap, Santa got down on the floor and started playing with toys with Xavier.” The Tuia family got a Santa photo that perfectly captured Xavier’s time with Santa.
The Sensory Santa sessions are important because it ensures in the inclusion of the special needs children in the holiday fun without the added stress and strain of being in an overloading environment. The sessions give children the ability to whisper to Santa their Christmas wish so they can have a merry Christmas just like everyone else.
About the Author
Jasmin is in year eleven and enjoys writing realistic fiction and fantasy stories. Her favourite subjects are geography and English. When she is not writing she is probably studying, but in the holidays she likes to read, ice skate, play her guitar and spend time with her sisters.