A Very Special Easter Bunny and A Very Special Santa For Very Special Kids

It’s quite ironic that the two characters most aimed towards the imagination of young children, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, also contain the most stress for kids when they go to visit them.

Picture it – lines of young children at the mall. Shoppers crowding around them, lights blaring, music echoing over the load speakers, uncomfortable fancy clothes, crowding in the lines. A domino effect of screaming kids begin: first one kid, then the next, then a few more kids, then a line of children, crying, wringing in their parents arms, contorting themselves in odd positions as they attempt to escape their mother’s grasp and dart from the space in line they have occupied for the last 20 minutes. By the time they meet the old man with the white beard, or the person in the giant bunny suit, they are overwhelmed, over tired, and over stimulated.

And probably scared to death…..

For kids with challenges and disabilities, this experience, which is stressful enough for all children,  is a nightmare. Whatever their challenge, waiting in line with so much sensory stimulation is too overwhelming and can cause meltdowns. By the time they reach the big guy in red or bunny, there’s no way the photographer can get any sort of descent shot in the three takes allowed. That is, if they can even get the child to sit on Santa’s lap or even come near the guy in the big headed huge eyed bunny suit.

And let’s not forget the discomfort of those with physical disabilities, like those in wheelchairs, who cannot navigate the “holding areas,” wait in lines, or even approach their holiday characters.

My son has sensory integration processing disorder (SPD) which in its simplest form means he has difficulty processing and dealing with sensory input. Certain sights, sounds, and situations cause sensory overload, producing a “fight or flight” response from him. This disorder, acquired during sensory deprivation when he lost his hearing for a year, has made it challenging for him to visit Santa Claus or Easter Bunny each year. We’ve made it to their laps, but rarely if ever got a photo of him in which he didn’t look stressed or distracted. At least he was able to sit on their laps, I rationalized. Some kids can’t even do that. Many parents of special needs children have given up trying to give their kid the seasonal experience enjoyed by other children, meeting Santa or the Easter Bunny.

Thanks to a program in the Simon Malls, that has changed. “A Caring Santa” and “A Caring Bunny” provides a stress free environment for students with special needs to meet their holiday character. The program started in my area five years ago with “A Caring Santa” and they added an Easter Bunny visit this year. We stumbled upon the program in December, which happened to be held on my son’s 5th birthday. I had no idea what to expect. I thought, at most, that they would allow the photographer to take multiple shots, or perhaps more understanding staff when a meltdown in line occurred, or ideally providing kids with disabilities to move to the front of the lines.

What we got was so much more….

It didn’t occur to me at first that the times of the event were before the mall’s hours of operations. Allowing these kids to visit Santa prior to the mall opening means they avoid the crowds of holiday shoppers. This automatically eliminates one of obstacles they face with sensory stimulation. A very wise idea.

Then came the complete outpouring of support, and the realization that these staff members were trained to handle kids with all challenges. We were stopped when entering the area directly in front of Santa’s seating and asked if we were here for the “special event.” When we replied in the affirmative, we were ushered to a reception area with chairs and tables decorated in simple holiday decor, told to “grab a snack and art project” and then given a number. My mother, who attended with us, stayed back, thinking it was just for the kids, but she was told to join us because “this is for the families as well.” The “snacks” was a full breakfast spread  provided by Au Bon Pain- bagels, scones, fresh fruit, large muffins, coffee, juice, danishes. The arts and crafts ranged from “Santa kits” to simple coloring.

I watched as the staff gave each family a “count down” of their appointment: “You’re number 24, correct?” they’d whisper. “Number 20 is up now, so you have about 10 minutes if you want to prepare your child.”

Anyone with a special needs child knows forewarning is paramount to comfort.

I noticed the escalators were all turned off – another stimuli that scares and overwhelms some children – and the Christmas music, usually blaring through the mall, was off. To our left, the lines began to form of parents and screaming general population kids waiting for the mall to officially open so they could have their chance to see Santa as well.

My daughter, a general ed student, looked at the line and said, “Do we have to get in THAT line?”

“No,” I said. “We get to wait right here, eat our breakfast, and wait for our number to be called.”

“Cool!” she replied.

I explained to her the reason we get to do this: because Santa and nice people who know about her brother’s difficulties have set this up so he and kids with other challenges won’t be scared.

“This helps them meet Santa,” I added. “And we should be very thankful to them for helping.”

And how nice it was that Santa set it up on his birthday.

My son, in the meantime, sat happily eating his bagel, looking around, and smiling as if he believed they really did set this up just for him. He was stress free, comfortable, relaxed, and very very happy. We took him to see Santa from a distance a few times as we waited, and he smiled.

When our number was called, it was a relaxed experience. My daughter approached him as she always does, but this time my son ran right up to him as well. He hugged Santa, he laughed, he smiled, he sat right next to him and snuggled close and – this was the most amazing thing – he looked at the camera and smiled. No distractions, looking around at everyone else in line, covering his ears, or trying to shield his eyes. He was relaxed, focused, and smiling. The photographer took multiple photos – 5 or 6 – but he got the shot on the  second take. The result – the best Christmas picture we’ve ever had of him with Santa.

After our visit, we hung around some more, ate some more, and observed the caring staff help each child individually. One child was too afraid to enter Santa’s seating area, so he and the photographer met the family at their table. Another time, a wheelchair bound child couldn’t navigate the photo area, so once again the photo area came to him.

As the scheduled mall opening time grew near, I heard staff talking.

“We still have three more families….” one staffer asked.

“OK, don’t open the general line until those people have had their turn,” the manager replied.

Then the manager came over to me. “Do you mind if we turn the escalator on now?” she asked. “Will it bother him?”

I replied he was fine with the escalator, and thanked her for the program. She told me they had partnered with Autism Speaks and a council for parents of children with special needs to put it together. Last year, she said, only about 20 families took advantage of the program, but this year, it doubled to 40+ families. In fact she was wondering if they needed to open the program up even earlier, allowing for 3 hours of visiting time instead of the 2 hours they scheduled for today. And, she added, for the first time the Easter Bunny would be participating in the spring.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude that these people understood my son and his challenges and that they were able to provide such a safe environment for him and our family. No people staring at us in line, no stress for him or me as I try to calm him down, no worrying about whether or not they will “catch him” looking at the camera. Just a peaceful and fun environment for him and us to be like other families. I cried walking out of the mall as I stared at the his happy and relaxed picture.

I uploaded the photo to Facebook and was bombarded by comments, both on and off line, that my son looked so content and at ease. Everyone agreed it was his best photo with Santa yet.

Last week, on Palm Sunday, the Easter Bunny did come as promised, and once again we participated in the relaxed atmosphere before the mall opened. I told my son how we were going to see the bunny just like we saw Santa, and he smiled. He was so happy when we walked in that once again it was like he thought they did this all for him. His photo was once again the best he’s ever taken with the bunny, and the photography snapped many shots of him hugging the bunny, kissing the bunny, and even kissing his sister. We continue to be amazed at how well trained and compassionate the staff is and grateful that such a program exist. I only wish more parents knew about it and participated as the more their child experiences it, the more it helps their child be more comfortable even in non-ideal situation.

My kid did see Santa and the Easter Bunny, and he did enjoy it, thanks to Simon Malls.

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