FOR children with autism a visit to Santa can be anything but merry for some it can be a terrifying experience, with long queues, large crowds, bright lights and deafening noise.
Unfortunately many families with a child with autism forego the traditional visit to Santa’s grotto and miss out on an experience that so many families take for granted.
But the National Autistic Society NI and Bloomfield Shopping centre in Bangor are helping create special memories for special children and their families by organising Autism friendly visits to Santa.
‘Silent Santa’ visits have been happening in America and Canada and Emma Harvey from Bangor who is mum to six-year-old Ethan read about the concept in the Huffington Post and was moved to try and organise something similar here in Northern Ireland. After writing to Bloomfield shopping centre last year Emma joined forces with the National Autistic Society Northern Ireland and organised the first Silent Santa visit in Northern Ireland.
Emma says, “My son Ethan is a lively, fun, mischievous, loving, little boy who loves trains and dinosaurs. Ethan also has autism and ADHD. He loves Christmas time and is fascinated by the lights, decorations and of course the big man himself.
“However Ethan is easily overwhelmed in busy, crowded and noisy places. As a mother it is heart-breaking that simple things so many take for granted like visiting Santa, which should be fun and magical become such an ordeal for him.
Silent Santa visits involve the Shopping Centre opening early to allow children with autism an allotted time to see Santa in a calm and quiet manner, the music is low there is no waiting and Santa understands the difficulties the children experience. I was delighted when Bloomfield agreed to help. Finally my little boy got to experience Santa with nothing but joy, excitement and a few mummy tears.”
Shirelle Stewart director of the National Autistic Society NI says, “Christmas can be an exciting and fun time, but it can also be stressful for people with autism. The change of routine, new activities, noise, and crowds can be confusing and distressing and that can be upsetting for the rest of the family. We are delighted that Bloomfield shopping centre have agreed to hold a number of Silent Santa sessions and bring the magic of Christmas to a child with autism.”
Jamie Bill centre manager of Bloomfield shopping centre was more than happy to help organise Silent Santa visits.
He says, “When I was approached by Emma I was very moved when she outlined the difficulties her son experienced when visiting Santa. We all take it for granted that children will be able to experience this central part of Christmas so we decided to come on board with the Silent Santa concept and joined forces with the National Autistic Society NI to organise a number of visits. It is lovely to see the children and their families get to experience a little bit of Christmas that many families take for granted.”
The National Autistic Society also has a pop-up shop in Bloomfield shopping centre which will be selling a range of handcrafted gifts made by people with autism so if you fancy delicious fudge, handmade soap or some glassware then pop along and purchase a gift with a difference.
• To get more information contact the National Autistic Society Northern Ireland on Tel: 028 9068 7066. Bloomfield Shopping Centre’s visits to Santa are free but donations are welcome and the National Autistic Society NI will receive all donations which will be used to fund its services in Northern Ireland.