Children with special needs get their own, special Santa time

“I’d drive 1,000 miles for an experience like this.”

Harrison Markin, 6 yrs, experiences a giant snow globe and visits Santa and Mrs Claus at Southcentre Mall in southwest Calgary on Sunday, December 3, 2017. The mall hosted a before-opening hours sensory-friendly Christmas/Santa event designed for children with autism, mobility disabilities and other special needs. Jim Wells, Postmedia

Valerie Fortney, Calgary Herald December 4, 2017

On Sunday morning, John Markin didn’t have to journey quite that far so his son, Harrison, could have his moment with Santa.

He did, though, pass four or five other shopping malls from his home in Calgary’s northwest to Southcentre Mall, to be a part of “A Special Time For Santa,” a program the shopping centre has been offering for the past few years in partnership with Autism Calgary.

Six-year-old Harrison has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD); he can’t handle the crowds of people, loud music and visual kaleidoscope of the usual visit to Santa’s Workshop, let alone a mall on an average day.

“All of this already makes him incredibly anxious,” says Markin as he looks around at the giant plastic trees, tinsel and other shiny ornaments that decorate the venue. “You add other excited kids and it becomes impossible.”

To have this option, adds wife Kris Markin, is something they can’t put a price tag on. “We love the holidays,” says the mother of two. “Spending time with Santa is something we did with our daughter, who’s 15 now, and wanted Harrison to experience, too.”

The aim of A Special Time for Santa, says Michelle Noble, is to give kids like Harrison a chance to participate in something most families take for granted.

Children with ASD — which includes Asperger’s syndrome — often have challenges with communication and socialization, which can be exacerbated by even the smallest increase in sensory stimulation.

“We create an environment that is quiet, calm and supportive for kids who can get easily overwhelmed,” says Noble, Southcentre’s guest experience manager.

On this day, the mall eschews the usual bright lights and holiday music, creating a soothing scene for the kids, some of whom have other physical and behavioural challenges.

Along with A Special Time for Santa, the mall also has an annual Special Time for Halloween event each year. “CrossIron Mills also started doing the Halloween event,” says Noble, who wishes more local malls would consider a sensory-friendly Santa event like theirs. “We’re all booked up now, with 150 kids signed up to visit.”

She says it is always an emotional experience. “I cry every time,” Noble says with a laugh, her eyes tearing up as the kids begin arriving. “It’s so wonderful to see how happy they are.”

Noble has a personal connection to the program; her nine-year-old son, Trey, was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when he was a toddler.

She wrote to Southcentre administration a few years ago about the possibility of such a program. “It was before I came to work here,” says Noble, a member of Autism Calgary. “It’s great that now I get to help put it on for other kids.”

Southcentre Mall arranged a special Santa Claus meeting time for children with autism, December 2, 2012. CTV News

Darlene Smith says her daughter, Natalie, looks forward to her Santa visit every year. “She just loves it,” she says of her daughter, who is 23 years old. Natalie has cerebral palsy and developmental delays. “There are some great people in the world that help us to do this for her.”

“It’s a difficult time, in her world, to try and keep things calm,” her husband, Rod Smith, says just after Natalie, clearly elated, has her time with Santa. “This is such a great way to do this.”

Last year, says John Markin, Harrison played with various interactive displays but stopped short of sitting on Santa’s lap. “We don’t go into this with expectations, we’re just happy to be here,” he says.

On this day, Harrison is clearly once again enjoying all the distractions on the path to Santa’s big chair, stopping to push a button that activates a giant snow globe.

He won’t, though, turn that final corner. So Santa comes to him, crouching down to the boy’s level to check out the big snow globe.

“This is so nice he can experience this, in his own way,” says Kris Markin with a smile, just after her little guy accepts a high-five from old Saint Nick.

“I just want him to experience what other kids do at Christmas, so this is something we’re quite grateful for,” says John Markin.

“Every year, it just gets better and better.”

Source Calgary Herald


Also see
Silent Santa offers a distraction-free environment for children with autism in The Globe and Mail
2017 Holiday Buying Guide for Cerebral Palsy in Cerebral Palsy Today
Photos with Santa at the mall in Calgary – 2017 in Calgary Playground Review
Holiday Gift Ideas for Your Favorite Friend Who Has Cerebral Palsy in Cerebral Palsy Today
Christmas Gift Guide for Children with Disabilities in Come Roll With Me

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