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For boy with autism, Tampa ‘Sensory Santa’ gives family photo without fuss

Before the mall opens, without the bright lights and crowds, a family gets its Christmas moment.
Yahir Manuel Charneco Roldán, 6, stretches to catch a glimpse of a TV screen playing holiday cartoons near the atrium where families lined up for a visit with Santa on Sunday Nov. 24 at International Plaza in Tampa. The early event at the mall was for families with sensory-sensitive children like Yahir, who has autism. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times]
Yahir Manuel Charneco Roldán, 6, stretches to catch a glimpse of a TV screen playing holiday cartoons near the atrium where families lined up for a visit with Santa on Sunday Nov. 24 at International Plaza in Tampa. The early event at the mall was for families with sensory-sensitive children like Yahir, who has autism. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
Published Nov. 27, 2019

TAMPA — Yahir’s mother kneels in the mall atrium and pulls her 6-year-old’s face into her hands.

“Papi,” she says, fingers cupping his flushed cheeks, their wide eyes locked. Her words are slow and direct. “First, Santa.”

Yahir sinks to a crouch on the gleaming white tile and groans.

“Eyes on me,” Charleyn Roldán Bonet says. “First, Santa. Later the TV. Okay?”

He looks back. He doesn’t respond. Yahir has never spoken.

He laces his arms inside his mother’s, their matching black and red flannel shirts touching. His father, Emanuel Charneco Gonzalez, sways above them with Yahir’s 2-year-old brother, Ian, against his shoulder.

All week they had prepared for this morning, a visit with Santa at International Plaza, where tantrums loom for all families, but especially theirs.

Related: Related Story: Want to be Santa? Be ready for tough questions and heartbreaking requests

Yahir has autism, meaning the lights, sounds and long lines of a mall Santa display are utterly overwhelming. Years before, they tried to visit during business hours but left without taking a picture. Then they learned that for one morning, the display at International Plaza opens before the rest of the mall just for children like Yahir.

Charleyn Roldán Bonet, 30, calmly explains to her 6-year-old son, Yahir, that after visiting with Santa they would see the TV screens. During an early event at International Plaza for families with sensory-sensitive children, there were no flashing lights or loud music, creating a more calming experience for children who prefer it like Yahir, who has autism. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

At “Sensory Santa,” employees dim the lights and cut the music. The stores remain closed, the crowds away.

Each morning leading up to the event, Yahir’s parents showed him videos of Santa and reminded him about the big visit.

For Yahir, routines are a way through life. He walks on the right side of his mother every day from their apartment off Fowler Avenue to Shaw Elementary. He wears a school uniform. He showers at 7 p.m. One month, he would only watch UglyDolls; whenever Roldán tried to put on a different cartoon, he cried. Yahir eats oatmeal weekday mornings, pancakes on the weekend.

Sunday began with oatmeal instead of pancakes. His parents dressed Yahir in two shirts — the flannel that matched theirs and his brother’s, along with a dark undershirt — instead of one.

The Santa event was an example of the chances they had hoped to find when they moved to Florida from Puerto Rico four years ago. Soon after they had Yahir, Roldán, 30, and Charneco, 27, noticed he did not react when they scraped metal pans or rattled their keys on the floor. He did not talk and was uninterested in playing with other babies. Medical specialists offered varying diagnoses, then settled on autism. Roldán remembers how flat and unfeeling the doctor seemed upon delivering the news. She ran to the car and cried.

Their insurance in Puerto Rico covered only one therapy session a month. They found a daycare, but after a little while, the director told them Yahir had to go — no one there understood how to work with children like him.

Now he has therapy in his home a couple of times a week. Yahir is non-verbal, but he gestures, and is learning basic sign language. He makes quick hand signs for words like “drink,” “eat,” “toilet,” and “book.”

Books are his favorite. He has more books than toys.

Yahir Manuel Charneco Roldán, 6, motions to his mouth with his fingers to communicate with his behavior therapist, Christopher Sugiarto on Monday, Nov. 25, 2019 in Tampa. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Yahir loves Dr. Seuss, tracing words with his fingers, finding those he knows, like “dog.” Sometimes at the playground, he tries to hug everyone he sees. “He has autism,” Roldán says, hoping to soothe the alarmed mothers. Yahir is learning to clap when he is excited, instead of wriggling his fingertips, something she hopes will draw fewer confused stares.

Roldán has a friend whose child cannot go on field trips for fear of breaking routine. She does not want her son to be restrained to only what he knows. Every day, she tries to do something new, even if it’s very small.

She calls Yahir her “surprise box.” Roldán can never predict exactly how he will react to change. Sometimes he cries, like when she gave him a shower one recent morning instead of at night.

Santa is a big change.

Roldán loves the tradition, a flare sent up for the child she feels inside herself. She likes seeing kids happy, some coloring now at long tables near Santa, waiting their turn. She rubs the wrinkled square of paper pinched between her fingers, No. 6, their place in line.

Yahir smiles, spreads his legs across the tile, tugs at the hem of his shirt. His mother caresses his chin and chest. Charneco carries Ian, who carries his brother’s headphones, in case the noise gets too loud.

A few mall walkers and employees pass down the hallways, sliding under grates into stores like Victoria’s Secret, flicking on lights. Mariah Carey’s voice echoes from the second floor, “All I want for Christmas is you!” A mall coordinator rushes over. “I apologize, we’ll get that music turned down,” she huffs.

Number 6.

They step forward, through twinkling fake trees, to the purple bench where Santa sits.

“Hello! Merry Christmas!” he bellows, gathering Yahir onto his knee. “I’m so glad you came to see me this morning.”

Santa hands Yahir a thin book from his bag, and Yahir flips the pages. His finger races across the words.

“Oh, a rainbow,” Santa says, following along. “That’s so good!”

Charneco and Ian sidle up to Santa’s side, as Roldán tucks in next to Yahir. An event manager approaches. “What can I do to get him to look at me but not trigger him at the same time?”

She flips a stuffed reindeer in the air, which stops Ian from crying. Yahir clutches Santa’s white-gloved hand.

The camera shutter clicks, the flash splashing across their faces.

“You’re on the nice list,” Santa cheers before Yahir stands.

The Charneco Roldán family smiles while taking a holiday portrait with Santa. From left, mother, Charleyn, 30, Yahir, 6, father, Emanuel, 27, and Ian, 2. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

The family steps back, through a doorway into an oversized sleigh, full of waxy fake snow. Elves dance across TV screens. Soft blue light trickles through the translucent ceiling. The only sound is the gentle whirring of a snow machine. The boys tromp through the white piles as their parents stand back, taking pictures on their phones.

Yahir giggles and skips, mimicking one of the dancing elves. “You’re Santa’s Hero!” the screen says.

The big sleigh is the least routine thing of all, snow falling on a bright morning inside a Tampa mall.

Yahir shifts under the plume of flakes drifting down like confetti. He gazes up as the flurries gather in his dark hair.

Yahir Manuel Charneco Roldán, 6, looks around the room at the television screens featuring holiday cartoons, while "snow" sprinkles from a vent in the ceiling. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

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