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Sensitive Santa: Event makes St. Nick less scary for children with autism

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Mindy Dawson talks about the Sensitive Santa event set for Dec. 11 at the Apple Blossom Mall in Winchester.

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Brenden Cook, 9, of Winchester, runs along the line of lighted trees inside Apple Blossom Mall in Winchester on Wednesday. While meeting Santa is a fun experience for most children, like Brendan, for an autistic child the sights and sounds can be frightening.

By Jessica Wiant -- jwiant@nvdaily.com
WINCHESTER -- For a typical child, going to visit Santa Claus at the mall is an exciting opportunity to share with the man in red what they want for Christmas.

For others, the loud music, crowds and lights can be terrifying.

Such was the case for Mindy Dawson's son, Joshua, who was diagnosed with autism in 2004.

"He probably went at least 5 years without seeing Santa at all," Dawson, of Capon Bridge, W.Va., said at the Apple Blossom Mall earlier this week.

Dawson admits that she had kept her son at home instead of taking him to see Santa for a variety of reasons, but it wasn't because he has an aversion for the holiday itself.

"He loves Christmas," she said of Joshua, whose 10th birthday is next week. "It'll be July and he'll be singing 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.'"

He doesn't handle music or big crowds well, she explained, and the thought of waiting in line kept her back. She was worried about him running off from her. Not to mention, she said, unfortunately it's not uncommon for parents of autistic children to keep them home simply to avoid dealing with other people's reactions.

"A lot of people don't understand," she said.

"The socialization is important," she said. "They need that."

Three years ago, she found out about an event called "Sensitive Santa" at a mall in Maryland. It was too late to make the trip with her son, but she called and presented the idea to the people at Apple Blossom Mall, and she organized her own Sensitive Santa for the first time last year.

The event last year, and again this year, is run entirely by volunteers, she said. Joshua's aide from school helps out, and so do some of the nurses Dawson works with at Winchester Neurological Consultants, as well as a few close friends.

The changes might not seem drastic: Children attending the event will see the same Santa and have a chance to ride the same train. A photographer will still be on hand to offer parents the chance to buy a photo. The mall, however, will be closed. The bright, overhead lights will be off. There will be no holiday tunes blaring over the speakers.
It's common for autistic children to have a variety of sensory issues, she said, among them sensitivity to light, sound and just human touch.

Designed specifically for children with autism, in its first run last year, Sensitive Santa at Apple Blossom drew in 40 children, Dawson said, and the results were touching.

"There wasn't a dry eye here last year," she said. "I get the joy, along with s
eeing my son happy, of seeing other kids."
Dawson explained she had no family history or personal experience with autism when Joshua, at age 3, saw a dentist who questioned if he was autistic.

She said she hadn't realized anything was wrong with him, and was embarrassed and mad at the accusation. But, afterward, she started investigating, and Joshua was diagnosed with autism in 2004.

There have been rough times since then, she explained. She had a newborn daughter at the time, and said people saw her son as just a bad, undisciplined child.

Things have gotten better since then. The hardest thing, she said, is though her son can express his wants and needs, he doesn't carry on a normal conversation like his younger sister.

He's usually pleasant, she said, and she sees it as an upside that he won't ever experience disappointment in others the way a typical child will.

"Kids can be mean nowadays," she said.

Dawson also deals with autistic patients regularly at her job.

"Those are some of the nicest, the kids are so nice," she said.

She's posted fliers about Sensitive Santa at her work, and has been happy to see parents' responses.

"I wish I could do more than what I have done," she said.

Dawson is hoping the event will continue to grow, and that her son will do even better at meeting Santa this year.

Last year, she said, he was a little shy and confused -- but loved riding the train.

"It was hard getting him off the train," she said.

"I guess it more or less lets you see what Christmas is all about."

event details
• Sensitive Santa will be held on Dec. 11 from 9 to 10 a.m. before the mall opens for normal business hours.
• For more information, contact Dawson at 540-931-8662 or email mindydawson@citlink.net.

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