Kids with autism meet 'Sensory Santa' at Sangertown Square

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. (WKTV) - Sangertown Square opened early Sunday morning, but only for a number of area children and their parents.

Those children, who suffer from Autism, got to meet Santa, without all of the stores open, meaning they basically had the mall to themselves.

And, Santa was actually a special Santa, trained in physical therapy and well versed in working with children who have autism.

Jeremy Earl is the Associate Vice President for Therapy Services at the Kelberman Center in Utica which specializes in Autism services, but on Sunday, Earl was 'Sensory Santa.'

'Sesnsory Santa' is a day where a specially trained Santa makes it easier for children with autism to approach Santa Claus.

Earl says this is not only a great event for the kids but for all involved, including himself. He said, "To see the joy in the parents faces, to see the excitement in the children, it really makes my holiday season. It makes my holiday season."

Kellianna Webb brought her three children to the event, and all three have autism. She said, "Every one of them are adopted and I adopted them specifically because they have special needs, every child needs a home."

Webb says her youngest son, Kelson, who is five, never was able to approach Santa before Sunday morning, when he actually hugged him. She said, "Today is a joyful day, and we can enjoy the fact that Kelson hugged Santa. That's a great thing, I mean it's amazing, every little step is huge"

Sensory Santa Day is a collaborated effort by The Kelberman Center, Upstate Cerebral Palsy and the Early Childhood Direction Center, or E.C.D.C..

Tammy Thomas with The Kelberman Center says this is just one program they help put on which allows kids with autism to do the same things kids that don't have autism can do. She said, "All kids want to have those fun experiences, be it Santa or in the summer, all of those things kids love to do and our kids want to to, and we give them those opportunities."

Susan Collandra is the Program Coordinator with the E.C.D.C. She says Sensory Santa understands the needs of these children very well, and this is the perfect way for parents of autistic children to be able to do something with their children they most likely wouldn't be able to otherwise.

Collanda says at this event, parents and their children don't have to wait in line. She says it can be a difficult experience if they try to do it during normal mall hours. She adds, "People look at them, and question their parenting, without understanding what the children's needs are. So they avoid the situation as well, whereas here they can come here and everybody understands."

Collandra says besides Sensory Santa, other professionals were onhand Sunday to help as well. She said, "We have an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a physical therapist, and all of the folks with the little Santa's helpers hats today are experienced with children with Autism."

Earl, meanwhile says having the event before the mall opens in the very same chair as Santa usually sits in, is a perfect way to get kids with autism used to talking to Santa. He said, "The lights are lower, the sounds are lower, there's less motion, less commotion in the mall, so that takes some of the sensory stimulation away, and then we go at the child's pace, so if the child needs an hour to get on Santa's lap to take the picture, we'll give them the hour."

Earl adds, "I try to read each child, a lot of time it looks like I'm just giving the children a hug, but I'm giving deep pressure to the child to help calm them, to help maybe ease their nerves, relax them a little bit more. It calms the child, so maybe they can sit for the 10 seconds that it takes to get the picture."

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