It's ironic that one of the most popular Christmas carols is "Silent Night" yet the holiday is far from quiet. Crowds of people, the beeps of cash registers and loud Christmas tunes can make it a harsh sensory experience for anyone, let alone for someone with autism spectrum disorder.
For them, the holiday din is closer to a cacophony, and it can ruin what should be a memorable and fun experience, particularly if that experience includes the chance to meet Santa.
For a number of years now, however, there's been a change in the air as Santas and stores have become more accessible to those with sensory sensitivities
Santa knows what to do
Take, for instance, the Santa that Matthew Foster met at a Cabela's store in North Texas.
Matthew is blind and autistic, and his mother, Misty, told CNN that he doesn't interact with people unless he feels comfortable with them. The two of them, along with Matthew's 20-month-old sister, Lilly, visited the store early in the morning to avoid lines.
Before they reached Santa, Misty quietly explained to him that Matthew is blind, autistic and "very interested in Santa." Santa held up his hand and replied, "Say no more." He then proceeded to get down on the ground to greet Matthew.
Santa invited Matthew to touch his coat and hat and asked Matthew to describe what he was feeling. Matthew, a big fan of "The Night Before Christmas," also asked to feel "the twinkle" in Santa's eyes. Santa readily obliged, allowed Matthew to run his fingers over his face and then through his beard for as long as Matthew wanted.
After it seemed Matthew was comfortable, Santa invited him to touch some taxidermied reindeer and even sit on his lap for a photo. Misty was very surprised when Matthew not only agreed but also smiled for the camera.
"I was just waiting for the meltdown at that point and as soon as he said yes, my jaw just dropped," she said. "His sister gave the Grinch face, but this time around, Matthew was actually looking at the camera and head up and everything. I need Santa in my life for family pictures."
A positive holiday experience
Santas like the one at Cabela's could be described as "sensitive Santas," or Santas that have special training to help them better interact with children with autism, or other related sensory needs.
At Zona Rosa, an open-air shopping center in Kansas City, children can interact with Santa on their own terms this year. The lights are dimmed and the music is softened around Santa's igloo, a space where children can simply play and become comfortable before engaging with Santa. In 2012, a behavioral health center in Arizona offered free sensitive Santa visits at their headquarters, with no lines involved.
"With the children's jumpiness and sensitivity to loud noise ... it's not 'Ho! Ho! Ho!', but 'ho, ho, ho,'" John Pettingill, a therapist at the center who played Santa, told AZ Central at the time.
Autism Speaks routinely offers "sensory-friendly Santas" each year at certain partnered locations around the U.S. The environment at these visits is "subdued and calm" and is based on reservations, not waiting in a noisy line.
Then there's Kerry Magro, a professional speaker who is on the autism spectrum. Magro has served as a sensory-friendly Santa for at least five years, including at an Autism Speaks event in 2015, as a way to give kids an experience he never had.
Following a Santa photo experience at the age of 6 that overwhelmed his senses, Margo, who was non-verbal until he was almost 3 years old, didn't see Santa for a while.
"It was sad for me," Magro, now 30, told Today.com. "I thought, why are those other kids able to do this, and not me? I didn't have any friends, and I was really trying to find that connection."
Now, Magro plays Santa and meets with children on their own level. He'll create a low-key sensory space for them, provide them with 30 minutes of time to play or engage or ignore, whatever works best for the child. Magro has also written a letter as a Santa with autism addressed to children also on the spectrum.
"Thanks to all of the support we’ve had through the years, the elves and I have decided we are prepared to bring a little bit of our North Pole Christmas cheer directly to you! You see, because of my younger days, I’m now going to help host an autism-friendly day for you all to enjoy!
"My elves will teach you all the songs they practiced, on the quieter side just for your ears. The elves are also going to show you how they do arts and crafts, North Pole-style. And finally (and this is my favorite part), you and I will take a picture together so we can both remember how much fun we had celebrating Christmas.