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Sensitive Santa makes a holiday tradition special for children with Autism

'It brings a smile to my face. He asks to see Santa Claus all the time, and just to see him running around, interacting with him is just beautiful' dad Geoff Rumph

It is early on a Sunday morning.

Normally at this time of day, Northgate Shopping Centre is closed to the public.

But on this particular Sunday, something magical is happening at centre court.

Children are having a visit with Santa. There are no flashing lights or loud music playing, ringing of Santa’s bells, or even shoppers to distract the youngsters.   

The families are enjoying a visit with Sensitive Santa, a partnership between Northgate and Hands

“During our autism friendly visits with Santa, each family gets around 10 minutes of alone time with Santa without the sensory overload.,” said Paula Hampton a family service worker at  Hands.

“Santa is very calm, very gentle. He sits back and waits to see what they need from him first. It is the only time that they can comfortably come and see Santa. A lot of the children can’t even come into the mall, let alone come to a space where there is a lot of other kids around, and other parents, and all the lights and music. It is too overwhelming for them,” explained Hampton.

“So this gives them their opportunity to visit with Santa, and these families value it so much. The ones who come year after year, you can see the smiles on their faces. They come running down the hallway to jump on his lap and they wouldn’t get that any other way because it would just be too much.”

Santa makes sure that those who aren’t comfortable coming all the way into the shopping centre, don’t miss out.

“Santa will come out and meet them in the hallway to say hi, so he adapts to what their needs are,” said Hampton.

Young Zakery Rumph and older brother Lukas enjoy visiting Santa.

Zakery especially was excited to run around and be a little silly with Santa.

The family has been attending for a number of years, and dad Geoff appreciates the extra time spent with Santa.

“If you come any other time of the day it is in and out because there are long lineups,” said Geoff.

“It brings a smile to my face. He asks to see Santa Claus all the time, and just to see him running around, interacting with him is just beautiful. He goes up to Santa and says hello like an old friend and says what’s on his mind, then he’ll run around, and he’ll come back.”

Rumph says when Zakery was younger, standing in line for a visit with Santa was virtually impossible.

“He would want to shriek and run around. It is hard. So when you get the chance to come in like this, it makes it a lot easier. And we’re making holiday memories. I got my picture taken with Santa and the boys too,” he laughed.      

This is the second year mom Lynda has brought her family.

“Without any program like this, we didn’t have any way for the children who need that extra attention, who need that special association to get it. So, they would stand in line, but they would run off. It wasn’t helpful because most parents had to then leave the line. They wouldn’t see Santa because the frustration builds up, the children are impatient, and nobody wants to be in a long lineup. So, they would miss out on the chance and so would the family,” said Lynda.

Sensitive Santa encourages the entire family to be part of the experience.

“The connection matters. The connection they get with Santa, the comfortability, and all of them can come together. It is not just about the picture. They get time to sit there and have that time with Santa. It is about the experience, it is not just about a Santa photo.”   

Northgate has been hosting the event for a number of years, and during that time, its popularity has grown to the point where a second session was needed to meet the demand.

“This initiative provides children and youth with autism the opportunity to have a photo taken and a visit with Santa in a sensory friendly environment,” explained Jordanna Grant representing Northgate Shopping Centre.

“We are thrilled to be able to create a magical experience for children and families that may otherwise not be able to take part in this Christmas tradition.”  

The second and final Sensitive Santa visit is scheduled for Sunday, December 2nd.

Only a few spots remain available.

Anyone interested in making an appointment is asked to call Hands at 705-476-2293.ext 1333.