TAMPA — With a serious look, Jason Montefusco walked toward Santa, keeping a cautious eye on the man with the white beard.
Slowly, the 5-year-old climbed up into the seat, slid closer to Santa and reached out to touch the white pouf atop his red hat.
His 3-year-old brother took a seat next to him. A photographer snapped their picture.
Jason wasn't smiling. But his mother beamed enough for the both of them as she celebrated a holiday milestone with scores of other parents of autistic kids.
"Oh my gosh, I finally have a picture for my frame," Yesenia Montefusco, of Valrico shouted as she led her sons out of Santa's Wonderland at a Tampa mall Sunday morning.
To some, it may seem like a small thing. For Montefusco, having a photograph of her autistic son with Santa means the world.
On Sunday morning, more than 170 people from throughout Tampa Bay lined up for the chance to capture a moment many had thought impossible.
With music and lights turned low, WestShore Plaza opened early for "Sensitive Santa." The event allowed children with autism to visit Santa in a sensory-friendly environment.
The mall's owner, Glimcher Realty Trust of Ohio, started Sensitive Santa in some malls nationwide two years ago and extended the idea to all its properties this year, said Kristy Genna, marketing director for WestShore Plaza.
Though symptoms and severity vary, all affect a child's ability to communicate and interact. The number of kids diagnosed with autism is increasing, but there is debate about why.
The Sensitive Santa event, many of those attending said, shows its popularity and the need for more such events.
The crowd outlasted a two- hour time frame that had been set for it. Santa was still seeing children as the mall opened.
For many children, the wait was worth it. It was their first chance to meet the man in red.
"We hadn't even considered taking him during regular mall hours," said Gretchen Brack of Brandon as she held her 3-year-old grandson, Christian Nimmow.
"He doesn't do as well with all the lights and noise," she said. "This is a little more controlled."
When Christian's turn arrived, he suddenly became shy when Santa's white-gloved fingers beckoned him forward. But with some coaxing from Grandma, his picture with Santa was a success.
Melissa Gefers was hoping for the same for her daughter.
"The regular Santa is really loud and it's a little overwhelming," Gefers said as she pushed her 2-year-old, Isabella Foss, through the mall toward the growing line. Gefers and her husband traveled from New Port Richey after hearing of the event.
"It's crazy how many kids in this area are autistic, so it's cool that there is starting to be more things like this," Gefers said.
The large number of families who showed up for the event proves the bay area needs more sensory-friendly events, said Mindy Stevens, the assistant director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the University of South Florida.
"What we take for granted, other families may never experience," Stevens said. "Events like this make them feel like they are part of the community, too."
Susan Hunt, whose daughter, Larsen Hunt, was murdered in Seminole Heights by her former boyfriend in October, was at the event with her autistic 5-year-old grandson, Aidric Hunt.
Now taking care of the boy, Susan Hunt said the event was a great opportunity for those with autistic children and highlighted the appetite for more autism events in this area.
"How many people willing to come shows you how great the need is," she said.
With the line too long for Aidric to handle, Susan Hunt let him wave to Santa from afar.
Similar events in other areas of the region would be nice too, said Michelle Markowich, who traveled from Palm Harbor with her son, Hunter Markowich, 7.
"I wish we had something like this closer to us," she said. "But when you're a parent of a child who has issues like this, you'll drive wherever it takes."
With the line still winding through the mall behind her, Montefusco helped sons Jason and Julian back into their wagon as she clutched the picture she had longed for so badly.
She already had a plan on how to display it.
"I have a frame," she said. "It's a gingerbread frame with icing and gumdrops all around it."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374