Sensitive Santa gives the gift of calm visits to children with autism in Saskatoon

The stores at Lawson Heights Mall were closed and the lights were dim, but children waited excitedly to meet the man in red. 

Autism Services of Saskatoon organized a "Sensitive Santa" event to allow children with autism to visit Santa without the overstimulation of a busy day at the mall. 

"There's not the hustle and bustle of everybody shopping. It's really personal for us," said Ashley Primeau, whose son Rylend has autism. "It's something that my family is really looking forward to."

Chelsea Laskowski/CBC

During normal store hours, Rylend would have had a hard time in the busy mall. 

"He has severe autism so the lights, the noise, different perfumes, everything going on — it can send him into sensory overload and he gets lots of meltdowns," Primeau said. 

Sensitive Santa allows children on the autism spectrum to visit Santa Claus and get pictures in a quiet, sensitive environment. Lights are dimmer than normal and people register in advance to meet Santa at specific times. 

It's pretty exciting. They're going to get to go and sit on Santa's lap and not have to worry about the meltdown on the way up to Santa. - Ashley Primeau

For Rylend, the experience of meeting Santa could also help in the future. Ryland and his sister could come to the mall for a short time and he'd remember it's not a bad place, his mom said. One day, he might even self regulate, she added. 

"It's pretty exciting," Primeau said. "They're going to get to go and sit on Santa's lap and not have to worry about the meltdown on the way up to Santa."

As they walked up to Santa, Rylend's family introduced themselves. Rylend and his sister climbed up stairs and onto his lap. Santa gave Rylend a hug and welcomed him. 

Chelsea Laskowski/CBC

Rylend smiler for photos and told Santa his secrets. He got a polar bear, new stuffed friends, treats and coupons for Smitty's, his mom said. 

"This is our very first time coming to a Sensitive Santa like this and it's definitely something we will do every single year," Primeau said.

Seeing the joy on Rylend's and his sister's face was special, she said, adding most family outings don't turn out so positive. 

"It feels amazing to be able to go out with your family and just have all these special memories and special moments," Primeau said.