Sunday morning saw something unique and different. Before the day began at Woodsfield Mall and workers switched on the holiday lights to welcome shoppers, Liam, a four-year-old boy, saw himself being placed on Santa’s lap by his parents.
Although Liam cannot speak and couldn’t interact with Santa verbally, the Santa talked back to him, while gradually showcasing the decorations to him. The young child with shining blue-rimmed glasses and a beautiful red bow tie played with Santa and poked his belly while fiddling with his beard.
The boy shied a little and smiled while he hurried back to his waiting parents.
Liam had a premature birth and was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. “The child, given his age, doesn’t necessarily know who Santa is,” explains his mother, Erica Munnelly. His mother further says, “However, it is important to have the best memories photographed, to look back and remember things down the line.”
Interestingly, Liam made it to the list of being Santa’s first visitor. Families need to register in advance to have a glimpse of Santa and care has been given to schedule the timelines hours before the stores and malls open. The management took this necessary step to lessen anxieties and to allow the children to make the most of their Santa moments.
Further, the mall turned off its loud music and blazing ads on the seven screens surrounding the mall.
Erica says, “Liam doesn’t have an issue with sounds and lights. All we need is an atmosphere filled with patience as surrounding muscle movements make it harder for him.”
Cherry Hill, a parent organization, tirelessly works to provide the Santa Claus experience across the malls through Canada and the United States. The organization launched the Sensory-Santa back in the year 2011 and has never looked back.
Lisa Goring, marketing officer and chief program coordinator, says, “the program has seen a rapid growth since its inception.” The event is planned to go live at 300 locations this year. Previous years saw the program hosted in 180 locations.
Autism disorder is seen to affect one child in every 68 children across the USA alone as per the data available with the authorities. Out of these, one-third of the diagnosed population are nonverbal.
The condition is a lifelong condition and is unique to each affected individual. No two autistic individuals have similar symptoms.
Heather Lloyd, director of business development and marketing at the Woodsfield, says, “We ensure care is taken in every aspect. Every family is interviewed to make sure they are ok with sounds and lights.” The director further explains, “We had a family who wasn’t happy with the lights and necessary actions were taken to address the issue.”
Every family is given 15 minutes with Santa and children are given snacks and colorful crayons after their arrival. Interestingly, some families were seen to arrive in the choicest of clothing that was not limited to pajamas alone. Children had a merry time playing in the fake snow that fell from above.
Further, the show organizers were careful not to force the children, should they need more time to display the courage needed to approach Santa.
Teply, who attended the event, says, “When you are with a child with special needs, you just cannot rush.” She further continues, “Whenever events such as these happen, it should always be noted, it is our children’s time and not our time.”