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Special Santa visits special kids
Sensory-friendly Santa event gives children time to interact as they're ready

 Eleven-year-old Michael Muerdler was among Santa's visitors on Sunday.
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Date published: 12/17/2012

By PAMELA GOULD

The first time Pam Robins took her son to sit on Santa's lap at a large shopping mall, the preschooler bit the jolly old elf.

Last year, it took Jack several tries over two hours before he finally came in contact with the white-bearded man in the strange red suit.

On Sunday, Jack, now 8, sidled up to Santa pretty quickly and then posed for a photo along with his 10-year-old sister, Moira.

For most children, Sunday's success would seem insignificant. But for children diagnosed with autism or Asperger's syndrome or other sensory sensitivity issues, such holiday moments can pose huge hurdles.

The deviation from routine and the multitude of stimuli such as Christmas music, twinkling lights and bustling, noisy crowds can be overwhelming.

That's why parents and Riverview Elementary Principal Dianne Holmes provided Sunday's "Sensory Friendly Santa" event at the Spotsylvania County school.

When Santa--actually Santa's helper in the form of former School Board member (and Dianne Holmes' husband) Don Holmes--walked into Riverview's cafeteria on Sunday, 3-year-old Garrett turned and collapsed face-down on a tumbling mat.

He wanted no part of the gregarious guy in red. He preferred to continue with activities such as a bucket-like seat that rocked, a Hula-Hoop, or a tunnel he could crawl through.

About 15 minutes later, Santa approached while Garrett played on a sit-and-spin toy on the tumbling mat.

This time, Santa plopped his jolly old self down onto the mat. Garrett didn't immediately leave but he kept his distance.

But while Garrett was doing crafts at a table 45 minutes into the event, he finally interacted comfortably with Santa and they had a friendly exchange.

Sharon Cox, Garrett's grandmother, said she thought he would eventually enjoy Santa but hadn't known how long it was going to take to reach that point.

She was thankful for Sunday's event but said more activities like it are needed.

"There are so many things out there for children, in general, but children with special needs need a different set of circumstances," she said.

She was glad to be able to bring her grandson to the event and to give the boy's parents a break for the afternoon.

"Something like this, for the family, is an every day, every hour kind of thing," she said.

"There need to be more things like this for the family."

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972
Email: pgould@freelancestar.com