A rite of passage for many kids this time of year is a visit with Santa. And that usually means a trip to the mall. But for parents with kids who have autism or other sensory disorders, a rambunctious mall is the last place they want to be.
In Merrimack, kids have another option— a quieter visit with what’s called a “Sensitive Santa.”
From a distance, he’s your typical Santa. He wears the puffy red suit and belts out a laugh that’s as hearty as any other St. Nick.
But up close, his demeanor is more calming.
On a Saturday afternoon at the Merrimack YMCA, Bob Purcell is on duty as a “Sensitive Santa.”
He asks kids to help him up the stairs and into his seat. He softly whispers a request for chocolate chip cookies on Christmas Eve.
Purcell says, “Here we give the child all the time they need. I’m giving the child a lot of room. I’m tempting them to come to me.”
For the past three years, the YMCA has teamed up with the PLUS Company, a non-profit that supports people with disabilities. Purcell is chair of the PLUS company board.
"The kids don’t wait in an assembly line here. When they’re not interacting with Santa, they sit in a play area."
Christian Kellermann from Manchester helps his three- and four-year-old kids decorate stockings with reindeer and candy-cane stickers.
Kellermann says, “Both of my children were preemies. My son was an over three month preemie and has a lot of sensory issues.”
That’s why he avoids the Santa commotion in the mall.
“We can’t go up and take pictures with him. He’s still too shy and gets too nervous.”
Kellermann says his son Liam isn’t autistic, but has trouble processing sounds, movements and visuals.
Denise Beaulieu-Morrison is the clinical services director at The PLUS Company.
She says “for most of us, sensory processing is automatic.”
She explains that kids like Liam get stuck in what you might call, a neurological traffic jam.
“If you can see yourself on a four-lane superhighway, and it’s rush hour. People are trying to merge, and no one is going anywhere.”
The mix of bright lights, piped-in music, long lines and touching with strangers — they all collide with one another.
“Their systems are so revved up trying to take everything in that they’re having an emotional reaction,” says Morrison. “A child may start screaming and crying. Or they may try to escape the environment and start running. It wouldn’t be pleasant.”
Susan Dunn of Nashua says she knows better than to bring her five-year-old son Brian, who is on the autism spectrum, to a shopping center.
Dunn says, “He gets afraid and anxious. The noise bothers his ears.”
Brian chimes in that “They can’t put music on in there.”
Even in this controlled environment, Brian needs some coaxing. In his Santa costume, Purcell asks Brian if they can pose for a photo. He tells Brian that he like pictures because he can put them up at the North Pole.
Eventually Brian snuggles up to Santa and waves to his mother. And Dunn gets the photograph she’s been waiting for.
Sensitive Santa events like the one at this Y are on the rise as awareness of autism and sensory disorders builds. And that makes it easier for more families to not only get through the holidays, but also enjoy them.