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December 17, 2013

A very special Santa Claus

‘Sensory Santa’ experience gentler for children

CORBIN — By LeeAnn Cain / Staff Writer

Joshua Wombles wants to give Santa Claus a hug.

He doesn’t want to sit on Santa’s lap, but that’s OK. Santa is simply happy to have children like Wombles come to him. They don’t need to sit on his lap or even talk; they need only to be themselves.

Saturday afternoon saw around 20 children — mostly special needs according to event organizer Jessalynn Bowman — greet Santa Claus in a calm environment at Sound Down’s Sensory Santa event, held at Belk in Corbin. The event is for special needs children who are sensory sensitive, which means things that seem ordinary to most children can be overwhelming to sensory sensitive children.

The room in which Santa sat was dim. No flash photography was allowed, though each child did get a free photo with Santa and a large peppermint stick. It was in the back of the store, away from shoppers.

Lucas Alsip busily chewed on his plastic toy as he eyed Santa with caution. He approached, but turned back to the comfort of his family. His parents asked him to put the toy down, but it’s a no go. With renewed courage, Alsip approached Santa once more and allowed himself to be placed on Santa’s lap. When handed a large candy cane, he seemed to decide  candy is better than his toy.

Bowman, a member of Sound Down’s board, said the annual visit to Santa Claus can be overwhelming for some special needs children. Some who are sensitive to touch feel like Santa’s fuzzy red suit is made of sandpaper. Santa’s booming “ho ho ho” can overwhelm children who are sensitive to sounds. Bowman said Sensory Santa is quieter to avoid frightening children who are sound sensitive.

“Santa can be overwhelming for a lot of kids,” Bowman said.

Bowman says they won’t turn away any children, but the event was aimed to serve children who may not otherwise enjoy the experience of meeting Santa in a more typical environment. It is Sound Down’s first year doing Sensory Santa, and Bowman says that it has been a rousing success.

“It went over really well,” Bowman said. The staff at Belk were delighted to have the children.

“A lot of places wouldn’t take the time to do [Sensory Santa],” Teresa Miracle, who manages special events at Belk, said.

Sound Down has only been going for about two years, according to Bowman, and the main event the group organizes is movies for sensory sensitive children — though Bowman says next year they plan to hold many different activities and even possible play dates in calm environments.

Many of the children served by Sound Down are autistic. In addition to sensory sensitivity, autistic children can experience social difficulties. Some may not know how to interact with others, and some may not be able to interact at all.

Autism is growing more prevalent, with 1 in 88 boys being diagnosed and 1 in 118 children located somewhere on a spectrum that can result in anything from a minor disability that children can learn to cope with effectively to extreme difficulty in coping with everyday environments and an almost total inability to communicate, according to Bowman.

Bowman’s own child is nonverbal, meaning he does not speak, and he can be overwhelmed by certain textures and sounds. Sensory Santa is a chance for many of these children to experience a traditional Christmas staple in a safe and secure way; many events can be overwhelming for children with sensitivities to light, touch, and sound, according to Bowman. These children can be terrified of crowds, loud noises, bright lights, and it can be difficult for them to do things most take for granted.

Autism also means that children have social difficulties an might not act like other children in public. An environment like the one Sound Down provides is safe, and allows the children to behave in a way that is normal to them. If a child does not want to talk to Sensory Santa, that’s OK. He understands that a nonverbal child cannot talk to him, and so does everybody surrounding the child.

Sound Down helps these children experience things such as movies and Santa Claus without being overwhelmed, and in a safe environment with parents and other children who are experiencing some of the same challenges.

Sound Down will hold another Sensory Santa event from noon to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Laurel County Public Library.

 

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