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The Santa who went to great lengths to reach a little boy with autism.

I don’t even bother trying to get my son to sit down for a Santa photo anymore.

Not all kids like it, as we can tell from the countless Christmas photos featuring hysterical children trying to get off the lap of their local shopping centre Santa. As all mums of special needs children know, that hysteria isn’t worth the funny photo, because its not so easy to calm them down afterwards, not to mention the long term effects in terms of anxiety surrounding similarly confronting experiences.

I gave up a few years ago. It just wasn’t worth it.

Then I spotted a photo of a shopping centre Santa lying on the floor next to a boy. The Santa was carefully getting down on the little boy’s level, playing next to him, not pressuring him into doing anything and the boy was slowly but surely warming up and inching closer.

Tears sprang into my eyes because, without even reading a word, I immediately knew what was happening.

The little boy’s name is Brayden Deely. He’s just six and he has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Mum Erin Deely wouldn’t normally consider taking Brayden to see Santa but she heard of a local Caring Santa event being hosted by Autism Speaks at North Carolina’s South Park shopping mall in the U.S.

Brayden with Santa beginning his approach
Santa begins by placing toys on the floor next to Brayden. Photo provided by Erin Deely.

Autism Speaks told ABC News that the aim of Caring Santa was to give families of children with autism and other special needs a more “controlled and welcoming environment.”

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Erin says Brayden normally misses out on meeting Santa. “Typically we probably wouldn’t have even made it up to Santa. Between the chaos of the mall, the long lines and the pressure of having to go right up to a strange man so you can sit on his lap and smile for the camera would have sent him over the edge! He would be fighting to get out of there the whole time!”

Even though Brayden wanted to meet Santa, he was reluctant and Santa needed to take careful steps when approaching him.

“Brayden immediately recognised Santa and got a shy smile on his face,” Erin says. “He stood nearby and checked out some of the present props they had. We didn’t put any pressure on him to go up to Santa at all and the staff patiently waited. Normally he would be anxious for a big moment but we took it very slow.”

Erin said she wasn’t expecting to get any photos at all, and it wouldn’t have bothered her in the slightest. It was all about helping Brayden to experience Santa just like other kids. The photos she ended up with though, are beyond special.

Brayden with Santa making careful progress
Santa carefully sits on the floor. Photo provided by Erin Deely.

Autistic kids are right there in front of us all. They just need a more considered approach to make them light up with the joy that comes naturally for other children their age.

Most of the credit goes to Santa, whose careful choices made Brayden’s day. Erin says it took just a few minutes and a musical snow globe for Santa to make contact.

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“After a few minutes, Santa had a musical snow globe that he turned on, put down in the middle of the floor and then went back to his seat. Brayden got curious about it and crawled over to investigate. After a moment, Santa slowly slid to the floor, onto his stomach and approached Brayden. They started to play together but no words had even been spoken between them. Brayden would occasionally look him at Santa and smile. They stayed like that for about 15 minutes. It was wonderful! The staff didn’t say a word. The photographer was snapping tons of pictures.”

Brayden and Santa looking at each other
Santa slowly inches forward and makes contact with Brayden. Photo provided by Erin Deely.

The success of this event certainly makes the case for having more Caring Santa events and similar events have been organised for autistic kids in Australia. Sensory Santa has been developed by Mirvac shopping centres with the help of Chanelle Avison, who runs Sensory Movie Day, a not-for-profit organisation for families with special needs children.

As well as Sensory Santa days and Sensory Movie Days, musical theatre shows such as The Lion King often go to the effort of catering to ASD kids, with the 2013 musical setting up a special adapted performance for children on the spectrum, complete with trained staff on hand, dedicated quiet areas as well as a modification of the actual performance to avoid any jarring noises or light displays. It was a huge success.

Brayden’s challenges will continue throughout Christmas and Erin has become very good at navigating him through it all. “Crowded, loud places are hard for him so crowded malls aren’t doable. He used to have anxiety over having a wrapped present placed in from of him because he didn’t know what was in it and didn’t understand what we were asking him to do with it. Now we just have all of his toys that Santa brings, unwrapped and out of the boxes so he’s ready to play with them on Christmas morning!”

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Brayden and Santa high five
Santa gets a high five from a delighted Brayden. Photo provided by Erin Deely.

I asked Erin what Brayden asked Santa for this Christmas and she said nothing, but not because he wants for nothing. “He doesn’t quite get that concept yet but I think he’s getting close!”

When I asked my son Giovanni, seven, what he wants for Christmas this year he said, “I don’t know” so I certainly relate to that. When I mentioned fish – having read that pets are a great idea for children who are on the spectrum – his face lit up.

Small, careful, considered steps are all it takes to reach out to our children who desperately want to participate in life but simply can’t cope with it all. They want to meet Santa, to open presents, to feast on Christmas lunch, to be hugged and go to parties and celebrations with their friends. When they get there though, it’s often just too much.

We now know so much about how to reach them, and hats off to this brilliant shopping centre Santa who showed us all that it is possible to reach out to so many kids with special needs, and spread Christmas cheer to even the most reluctant of children.

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