Visiting Santa at the mall is a tradition for many families, but for children who have autism, it can be an ordeal.
That’s where ACI Learning Center in Overland Park stepped in.
ACI is a place where children with autism go for various therapies, but on Saturday, staff members transformed it into a winter playland for their clients and any other families who needed an autism-friendly space for a visit with Santa.
In a usual Santa situation, “some of the kids may run in circles, scream and throw themselves on the floor. They don’t understand (when you say), ‘Wait.’ They want what they want,” said Nancy Champlin, CEO of ACI. “That’s typical for neuro-typical kids too, but this is intensified.”
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Instead of having to wait in a crowded line with lots of other children, the families signed up for appointments with Santa. While they were waiting for their turn, they were able to play in a large room full of toys and games that are used as part of the kids’ therapies. ACI staff, dressed as Santa’s helpers, supervised the area.
“I think my staff enjoys this as much as the kids,” Champlin said.
Staff members also set up a treats table with cookies and cupcakes, as well as two crafts tables — one with coloring sheets and another where children could make tree ornaments.
When it was time to see Santa, no one had to sit on his lap — or even share a wish list. The smaller, quiet room where Santa sat was decorated with fake snow, a tree and wrapped boxes. Santa — ACI team leader Gage Tubbs — sat on a small sofa, dressed in the traditional costume.
Kids could sit on his lap, next to him on the sofa or even just wander around the room. The point was to make it a comfortable and non-overwhelming experience.
For some of the kids, giving Santa a high-five was enough contact. Others cuddled up. The kids also had the option to go in and out of the room a few times if they weren’t sure about Santa at first.
“For some of the kids, it may take them longer to go in and acclimate towards Santa. … If the kids need to look at him, come back out and play, go back and look at him, go back and play, go up and touch his beard, then we can do that five or 10 times until they’re ready. …You can’t do that in the mall,” Champlin said.
Tubbs tried all kinds of strategies to make the kids feel comfortable, including calling them by name and speaking softly. Having other trained therapists there also helped, as everyone knew how to interact with the kids in the right ways.
“For some of them it meant more to the parents than the kids,” Tubbs said. “It’s well worth (it) … seeing all the happy families. Some kids get really excited at the door, but usually, you see some hesitation.”
Florence Breslin of Kansas City brought her two boys, Lukacs Breslin, 9, and Aiden Acker, 3, to the event and said it might be the first time she had gotten a picture of Lukacs with Santa since he was a baby.
Several parents said that their kids have had problems dealing with people in costumes in the past.
Caroline Dawson of Mission said her 9-year-old son, Liam, told her before going in that he didn’t think he could do it. Afterward, he rated the experience a five on his personal one-to-five scale.
“It’s really great to know that everyone around here gets it and understands what language to use (to make us) feel very comfortable and safe,” Dawson said.
About 85 kids signed up to visit Santa at the event. About half were on the autism spectrum, and the rest were siblings and other family members.