SARASOTA -- Sitting on Santa Claus' lap at the mall is just as important to an autistic child as to a non-autistic one, parents of autistic children say.
But the stress on the child and their parents caused by encountering Santa at a mall teeming with sensory overload has, in the past, kept many children from having their picture made with Santa, said Monica Sweeney who, besides being the mom to an autistic 11-year-old son, is a pediatric speech pathologist at All Children's Hospital's satellite office in Lakewood Ranch and a volunteer for the three-year-old Face Autism, Inc..
"Even though the children may be excited to see Santa, it may be overwhelming," Sweeney added. "Not to mention we parents of autistic children often deal with stares and judging from others."
But Sunday, officials from Face Autism Inc. and Westfield's Sarasota Square Mall solved the problem by hosting "Sensory Santa" from 8-10 a.m., giving roughly 30 autistic children two hours to sit on Santa's lap before the mall opened.
"Ian would not wait in a line because a noise would set him off," said Ian's mother, Daphne Higgins of Sarasota, as she watched her 5-year-old cry in Santa's lap but not really try to bolt.
Ian, who was carrying a computer tablet and who is obsessed with letters and numbers and alphabet puzzles, seemed delighted when the mall Santa got down on the floor to watch him play computer games.
At 18 months old, Ian stopped engaging his mother, father and brother, Trey, now 8, Daphne Higgins said.
"I was heartbroken," Daphne Higgins said.
But you wouldn't know it from the smile on her face Sunday. Other parents shared a similar story, which included shock at getting the
autistic diagnosis, followed by grief, acceptance and now, delight.
"Kevin stopped responding to his name," Sweeney said, recalling when Kevin, 11, a fifth grader in Fruitville Elementary's autistic education program, first began to show signs of a problem at 15 months after an ear infection. "He would put his face on tile. He would panic on a swing set. He wouldn't put his arms up to be lifted. He stopped saying momma, dadda or ball. These were classic signs of autism."
"I started to feel sickened," Sweeney added. "I felt my child was being sucked into a vacuum and I couldn't stop it." But the grief and other stages are long gone, replaced by an appreciation of Kevin for who he is, Sweeney said.
"Oh my gosh, he is beautiful," Sweeney said. "Kevin is very loving, veryplayful. He doesn't always want to do school work. He loves Disney Worldand French fries."
At Disney World, Kevin wears a headphone to silence noise. "As long as he is wearing his ear thing, he is golden," Sweeney added.
Sweeney thinks Kevin could hold a highly supervised job when he is an adult. "His dream job would be to run the train at Disney World," his mother added.
Colleen Buccieri, who could not attend Sunday's event, is president of Face Autism and started the group along with Ellenton's Yvonne Soriano, the mother of her godson, Jordan Soriano, 12, who is autistic and who attends Sarasota Coastal Academy in Lakewood Ranch.
Alma Hudson, who is Yvonne Soriano's best friend and does not have an autistic child, also helped start the group, which offers sensory-friendly movies, roller skating and an upcoming Easter Egg Hunt.
For more information, call 813-240-3044.