Children with behavioral challenges visit a gentler Santa

Ah, the annual Santa visit. The lines. The lists. The pictures.

The stress.

And although it’s usually worth it in the end, that’s not always the case for children with autism spectrum disorder and other behavioral challenges. Indeed, that stint with St. Nick can be so challenging that it’s not worth putting the family through the anxiety.

So the people at the Kansas City ACI Learning Centers decided to do something. On Saturday, they offered a free “Sensory Friendly Santa” event at their headquarters in Overland Park, featuring a jolly elf trained to work with children with disorders — all in a secure, protective environment.

“This is really a great deal for us,” said May Davis of Olathe, who with her husband, Todd, posed on a green couch with Santa and their 5-year-old twin sons, Liam and Xander. Santa gave Liam a high-five as he listened to the boys’ requests for a Furby 2 talking toy and a Wii U video game console.

“The malls are just too overwhelming,” May Davis said. “The waiting alone is too much, even for a typical kid. This makes it so much easier.”

ACI Learning Centers is a behavioral consulting company with other offices in Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado. Executive director Nancy Champlin said the company sponsored a similar Santa event at its office in Southlake, Texas, earlier this month and plans to expand it to the other centers.

“This was an exciting opportunity,” she said. “Our kids aren’t able to do this in a mall setting, because it’s so overstimulating, and parents tell us that the lines can be two hours long. But we have the tools.”

While the kids waited for their chance see Santa on Saturday morning, plenty of other activities were available to keep them occupied. Crafts, trikes and bikes, a trampoline and giant bouncy balls. They also drank apple cider, munched on gluten-free cookies and watched holiday movies.

Julie Thoendel smiled as her 2-year-old son, Shep, rode past on an orange tricycle.

“He’s just been to see Santa,” said Thoendel, of Leavenworth, who came with her husband and their 18-month-old daughter, Anna. “We had a lovely family photo taken. This is really special.”

Caleb Cooper was ready to see Santa. The 4-year-old from Merriam, decked out in bright blue tennis shoes and a red shirt that said “Santa Likes Me,” had already downed some cookies, ridden a bike, colored a Christmas tree and bounced on the trampoline. But his 18-month-old sister, Calea, wasn’t so eager. She began to shriek when mom Crystal tried to hand her over to Santa. Things calmed down, however, when Crystal Cooper sat with them on the couch and Caleb started singing “Jingle Bells.”

“Have you been a good boy?” Santa asked Caleb.

“Um,” Caleb replied, pausing for a moment. Then, asked if he could think of some examples, he perked up.

“My mom told me to get dressed, and I got dressed,” he said. “Then my mom told me to play video games, and I did.”

Said Santa: “It’s always good to listen to your mom.”

Afterward, Caleb said of Santa: “I liked him. He had big feet.”

Crystal Cooper beamed as they went to decorate a picture frame for their Santa photo.

“This has just been wonderful,” she said. “We could never have gone to the mall to do this.”

The guy in the Santa get-up was Gage Tubbs, a therapist at the center.

“I’m sweating, but it’s been great,” Tubbs said. “Having all these activities to distract the kids and warm them up, and having other therapists around to help, really makes them comfortable.

“It’s been rewarding. That’s why I’m in the field in the first place. And to be able to help during the holidays makes it extra special.”