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Sensory Santa helps neurodiverse kids meet the big man in red

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Lisa Mancini's family was able to take pictures with Santa Claus for the first time in five years this season, an activity she's not usually able to do with her two children, who are neurodiverse.

"I think it went great. The pictures are amazing. [My daughter] had fun. It was exactly what we were hoping for," she said.

It's all thanks to Sensory Santa, an initiative now available in Quebec that has helped hundreds of families with children on the autism spectrum.

Mancini said shopping malls are usually too overwhelming for her kids this time of year.

Sensory Santa takes place in a sensory-friendly environment before stores are open.

Sounds are lowered, there is no flash photography, and unlike typical Santas, there are no bells on Saint Nick's boots.

"When we saw this program, we signed up right away so that our kids would have a chance to enjoy it like everyone else," she said.

Autism Speaks Canada created the event to help make the holidays more inclusive.

"It's allowing us to give back to the community an experience which really, truly, should be enjoyed by all," said Krista Leitham, Autism Speaks Canada's community events national manager.

The program has been available in other provinces since 2018, but this is Sensory Santa's first year in Quebec.

It's being offered at malls in Pointe-Claire, Laval and Saint-Bruno.

This is a welcome change for the Dorion family, who has driven to Ottawa for the past three years.

"One and a half hours just to meet Santa last year, but it was fun and we love it," said mother Michelle Dorion, who said otherwise, "in the mall, it's too much sounds, too much noise and smell."

Michelle Dorion's family typically drives to Ottawa to meet Santa, so it was nice to be closer to home.Certified professionals train all Santas, said Leitham.

"What is autism? What does sensory friendly mean? How do you accommodate the autistic person but also the family?" she explained.

Like any good Santa, he still listens to what kids want for Christmas.

He also takes time for those still unsure of the big man in the red suit.

Families are given ten-minute timeslots in case children with autism need the additional time.

There can still be challenges.

"I thought it would be an easier way to introduce [my son] to Santa," said mother Christine Talatinian. "It wasn't, really. But it's okay. We tried. But slowly, I'm sure he'll adapt to that as well."

Christine Talatinian says her son tried to meet Santa, and she hopes he'll slowly adaptAutism Speaks Canada recommends families reserve their timeslot in advance.

 

One more date is available this weekend for families to join in on the holiday memory.  

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