COLUMBIA – The shopping mall slumbering under a blanket of falling snow gave no indication that in one short hour, it would erupt with the chaos of holiday shopping. Inside, the only patrons were a group of local families taking advantage of a special opportunity to meet Santa Claus – and they didn’t even have to wait in line.
For the past several years, the Howard County Autism Society has partnered with The Mall in Columbia to host “Sensory Friendly Santa,” a chance for children on the autism spectrum to visit with Santa and get their picture taken without the traditional lights, noise and chaos that might distract or irritate them.
Sunday’s event, which will take place again on Wednesday, Dec. 11, is held before the mall opens in the morning, so that organizers can tightly control the amount of sensory stimulation. Participating children are assigned a number so they don’t have to stand in line and wait for their turn, said Howard County Autism Society Board Member Jennifer May, who helped organize the event.
“Sensory issues are so much at the forefront with these kids on the spectrum,” she said. “Coming here and waiting in line for an hour is just not something that’s realistic.”
This year was Columbia residents Matt and Shelley English’s third time attending Sensory Friendly Santa. Their six-year-old son, Spencer, is on the autism spectrum and has trouble with things like understanding boundaries, his parents said.
“He doesn’t like to wait in line, so this is good for him,” Shelley English said. She and her husband took Spencer to a traditional Santa event before he was diagnosed with autism several years ago, she said.
“It was not fun,” she explained.
The Sensory Friendly Santa event drew around 100 people last year, and the number has steadily increased since its inception, said Howard County Autism Society Board President Sherri Braxton-Lieber.
“All of our events are growing,” said Braxton-Lieber. “We’re reaching a lot of people and it makes you feel good.”
The Mall in Columbia is also home to the AMC Theatres venue that sparked the nationwide Sensory Friendly Films program, which allows children with autism to view popular new movies in a less stimulating setting. The Columbia theater sold almost 200 tickets for last week’s Sensory Friendly Film, Frozen, Braxton-Lieber said.
Matt English said he and his family attended the special showing of Frozen, and try to participate in most of the other events held by the Howard County Autism Society. He said these events are less stressful for the children, but also provide support for the parents.
“Having an autistic kid is really stressful as a parent, because you just don’t get a lot of time to yourself,” he said. “[At these events,] everybody looks out for everyone else’s kid, because everybody’s in the same boat.
“You have dozens of parents there looking out for your kids so its not as stressful for you,” he said.
Spencer would not reveal what he wanted for Christmas this year, insisting the wish list was for St. Nick’s ears alone.
His father was less secretive: “Legos are high on the list this year,” he divulged.