As eight-year-old Jackson traced his finger along the large, black belt buckle of Santa sitting next to him, he became almost oblivious to the jolly fellow’s inquiries.
The rough bumps, the smooth spots, the ridges of the buckle, and the sandiness of the gold trim all prickling under the boy’s fingertips had him completely mesmerized.
Most probably wouldn’t have noticed the behaviour as anything more than a child’s curiosity. But for Jackson, it was more.
Jackson has sensory processing disorder.
His senses are significantly more intense than most. He can’t wear jeans because the texture physically pains him, he writhes under loud noises, and he is constantly feeling, whether it’s the socks on his feet, or new textures like Santa’s belt buckle.
“His sensory system doesn’t ignore data,” said Jackson’s mom Erin Enns. “He feels everything, he hears everything – he doesn’t have the ability to shut that off.”
And because of that, Santa visits have never been easy.
The long lines, the crowds, the bright lights, background music, incessant voices crammed into every area of the mall choke his senses to a breaking point.
A day that’s supposed to be magical often becomes a nightmare filled with crying, screaming, fighting, meltdowns that occur hours, sometimes even days, later.
“He gets so overwhelmed, he can’t eat,” said Enns. “He gags. He throws up.”
But this year is different.
No meltdown. No freak out. Just a good, memorable Santa moment.
Thanks to Sensory Santa.
Enns, founder of Sensory Bridge Events, a non-profit organization aimed at bettering the lives of children with sensory processing disorders, has organized several Sensory Santa events with Cottonwood Mall through the month of December.
Every Sunday, from now until Dec. 22, prior to the mall opening, Sensory Santa will be visiting with children not comfortable in the regular Santa scene – including children with sensory processing disorders, as well as autism, Asperger syndrome, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder, mobility issues, and others.
There will be no lineups, stores will be closed, lights will be dimmed, music will be off, and other background noises minimal. There will be no loud props, no jingle bells, no distracting toys, and all elves will be fragrance free.
“It’s about giving these kids a good moment with Santa,” said Enns.
The idea came to her last year after hearing about a similar program offered at Coquitlam Centre.
She couldn’t take her son to that one but thought it would be a great program to bring to families in the Fraser Valley.
Enns researched the program, and looked into how other communities pulled it off. She didn’t want it to be specific to just kids with sensory processing disorders, she wanted it to be inclusive of all children with disabilities.
“The average child has a hard time waiting in line, but add a disability to that, and it’s really difficult,” Enns said.
Not just for the child, but for the whole family. The child is struggling, the parents are stressed, and some of the people around them are staring, judging, making nasty comments.
“It’s not enjoyable,” said Enns.
Sensory Santa, however, is 100 per cent judgement free.
Last week, a child who was both autistic and blind arrived at the mall early to get his bearings before meeting the big guy. He wandered the area touching and feeling the environment around him, easing into his comfort.
“That’s what we want,” said Enns. “To give these children as great an experience as possible.”
Every parent who registers will receive a free 5X7 photo of their child with Santa.