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Sensory-friendly Santa provides Christmas experience to children with autism in Tampa

TAMPA

As soon as Elisabeth Jacoby saw Santa, a smile spread across her face.

The 6-year-old ran straight for the man in red, stomped her feet in excitement and practically threw herself into his lap.

"Merry Christmas," she said as a camera flashed.

Similar scenes are repeated at malls across the country this time of year. Parents shepherd kids through noisy lines, place them on Santa's lap and whisk them away once the flashbulbs go off, regardless of the look captured on the little ones' faces.

Only, this time it was different.

This was Sensory Friendly Santa, an event held Saturday for children with autism spectrum disorders. Often appearing in early childhood, symptoms and severity of the disorders vary, and all affect a child's ability to communicate and interact, the Mayo Clinic reports.

To put the children at ease, there were no twinkling lights or Christmas carols blasting. There were no long lines with hours of antsy waiting. When Elisabeth was too busy looking at Santa for the first photograph, another and another were taken until the photo looked just right.

Organized by the Lawyer's Autism Awareness Foundation, the event held at the Hillsborough County Bar Association's building in Tampa was designed to put autistic children at ease with an often overwhelming experience: meeting Santa.

Children with autism filter sensory information such as sight, sounds and touch differently than others, said Kelley Prince, owner of Behavioral Consulting of Tampa Bay and Vice President on the board of directors for LAAF.

"It creates a lot of anxiety every time they go into a new situation," she said.

Dimming the lights, keeping it quiet and getting rid of lines reduce those effects, she said.

To play the part, two Hillsborough County circuit court judges traded in their black robes for Santa suits. Judges Rex Barbas and Nick Nazaretian took turns donning beards and asking tough questions Saturday.

And as it turns out, judges and Santa seem to have the same affect on people.

"Kids know to be on their best behavior with me, and so do the people I see in court," said Nazaretian, who volunteers as Santa up to 20 times a year.

The main difference: "Most people are happy to see me in this chair," he said.

More than 80 children signed up for the event. It's the first effort of LAAF, which formed this year.

"This is not just for the kids but for the parents who feel so isolated," said Luis E. Viera, the organization's president and father to a son diagnosed with autism.

For Elisabeth's mother, the chance to skip the lines at the mall was a blessing.

"Waiting in lines for kids with autism is so difficult," said Christina Jacoby of Seffner. "They need to move around, there's too much noise and all the kids are crowded around. We've gotten some very bad pictures at the mall."

Even an event at a Tampa mall last year geared toward autistic children was too much for Susan Hunt's grandson, Aidric. The high turnout created lines longer than expected.

"We took him up to see Santa and waved, that was it," said Hunt of Tampa.

At this year's event, parents scheduled visits with Santa ahead of time so that no children would have to wait in lines. And families got one on one time with St. Nick.

When Aidric, 6, caught a glimpse of Santa, he stopped in his tracks. He changed his mind, though, once Santa held out a candy cane.

Sitting on his lap, Aidric finally got the chance to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas: "An owl."

"Well," his grandmother said, "that's a new one."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com.

. Fast Facts

To learn more

For more information about the Lawyer's Autism Awareness Foundation, go to thelaaf.org.

Sensory-friendly Santa provides Christmas experience to children with autism in Tampa 12/17/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 17, 2011 11:06pm]

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