A growing number of malls also are setting aside special times for sensitive Santa visits when the shopping centers would otherwise be closed, including the 23 shopping malls of Glimcher Realty Trust, based in Columbus, Ohio.
A recent autism-friendly Santa visit at its Northtown Mall in Blaine, Minn., just outside of Minneapolis, drew 55 children despite poor weather, and last year drew more than 100.
Linda Sell, Northtown's marketing director, said the two-hour window on a recent Sunday morning was devoid of lines and the bustle of a regular Santa visit. Instead, children could play and color nearby or walk in a safe, contained area until their number was called.
Sell said they also turned off the Christmas music, dimmed the lights, sent maintenance workers and other potential distractions away, and asked parents to fill out a form in advance to give Santa the heads up on the boys' and girls' wish lists.
"Some kids will sit next to Santa. Some will want to stand a little farther away and look at him, or sit in the chair next to him, or have mom or dad next to him," Sell said.
For a child on the autism spectrum, sometimes the smallest item or gesture can spark a connection — such as the Northtown Mall Santa's gold watch and the tiny Christmas train that rotates inside of it, for instance, or Ray Lepak's time as a swing-pushing Santa at the Connecticut park.
For many families, those small moments captured in pictures and memories are a holiday gift of their own: a chance to go beyond the constraints of autism and experience a Christmas tradition with their children that might not otherwise be possible.
"It's so hard on some of these families trying to take some of the kids out," Lepak said. "What a feeling that is, when I'm inside the Santa suit and I see those little innocent faces. They love it and it warms my heart."
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