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‘Sensitive Santa’ brings Christmas joy to children with autism

When Santa first appeared in her local shopping centre, Kirri Cottrill knew it would be too much for her two-year-old son Jack to handle.

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“He eyeballed him from the corner of his eye. He covered his ears and turned his head and it was too much noise, too much happening, over stimulation,” she said. “Jack wasn’t coping at all.”

Jack was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder last August. As the holiday season approached, Kirri had been worried about how he’d cope with all the noise and festivities surrounding Christmas.

But she said that changed after meeting Sensitive Santa.

“It was beautiful. It was magical for him,” she said.

“He connected with Santa, he looked into his eyes, he touched his hand, and he wasn’t scared.”

The program is run at the Mill Park Library, north of Melbourne. Santa’s cove has low lightening, minimal decorations and no music. Santa doesn’t force contact with the children, instead he’ll lay on the ground and play until the children are comfortable enough to make contact.

Photographers don’t use flashes and all the volunteers have undergone training to interact with children who have Autism.

Each family has a 30-minute time slot and Sensitive Santa is equipped with a cheat sheet of what each child likes and dislikes before they meet.

Mill Park Library branch manager Kylie Carlson calls each parent for an interview to ensure each meeting with Santa is as smooth as possible.

“All our volunteers on the day – the photographers and staff – all know the specifics about that child and talk to that child. It might be Thomas the Tank Engine they love so Santa will talk to them about Thomas the Tank to make them feel comfortable.”

It’s been so popular the 2013 pilot program has led to Sensitive Santa sell-outs every year since.

With one in every 100 Australian children diagnosed with autism, Amber Smith from Nillumbik Shire Council said it’s hoped the Sensitive Santa program would be expanded.

“Rotary of Eltham continue to fund the project and Metro Access across the three Shires are putting in some money as well. It’s not a particularly expensive project, but I think that it has the capacity to grow and it will need additional funds to do that,” she said.

That’s a suggestion the big man himself agreed with.

Santa said many children with Autism are unable to cope with noisy shopping centres and loud Christmas displays, and as a result their siblings also miss out.

He said getting that first-ever picture on Santa’s knee can be an emotional experience for parents with Autistic children.

“The biggest response comes from the parents and siblings. Obviously some of the children have never had that experience with Santa before, and mum and dad have a few tears and Santa has to hold them back too,” he said.

Now Kirri Cottrill said instead of dreading Christmas, the whole family is looking forward to it.

“I worry for Jack every day [and] how’s he going to go today compared to tomorrow. But having seen Sensitive Santa, I’m excited for Christmas.”

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