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Sensory Friendly Santa Event Gives Kids with Special Needs a Better Option

December 3, 2018

Israel Rojas-Gomez, 4, enjoys his one-on-one moment with Santa during a sensory-friendly event Sunday at the Village at the Peaks shopping mall in Longmont.

Jenny Kratzke and Kelly McPherson described taking their son, Xavier, to see Santa as “traumatic.”

Xavier, who’s now 4 and is on the autism spectrum with social anxiety, had a tough time with the traditional mall Santa experience.

“There were so many people in such a small space,” Kratzke said. “He was kicking and screaming and didn’t want to be there.”

So they were thrilled when he happily ran up to the jolly old elf to request “blocks, trains and boats” at a Sensory Friendly Santa event held Sunday in Longmont.

“I never expected it to go as well as it did,” Kratzke said.

The sensory friendly event, now in its third year, is the brainchild of Longmont’s Dylan von Kleist, who has a 12-year-old son with autism.

“I always wanted something like this for him,” he said. “There’s really nothing else like it in the area.”

He said the event has grown in popularity each year, from 18 families participating the first year to 50 families plus more on a wait list signing up for this year’s four-hour event.

Noisy, crowded malls with long lines to see Santa often are a stressful, not joyful, experience for kids on the spectrum or with a sensory processing disorder, he said.

So he eliminated the line by scheduling families in five to 10 minute slots, giving the children time to approach Santa at their own pace. Sunday’s event was held in a vacant storefront donated by Village at the Peaks.

“We want to give each family their own private time, so they can take as much time as they need,” he said. “It’s almost addicting to see the kids get so excited to see Santa.”

Along with a less overwhelming experience for kids, he said, parents don’t have to worry about being judged by those who get impatient or don’t understand the non-typical behavior of some children with special needs.

The event is staffed mainly by teachers and therapists from The Joshua School in Boulder, who volunteer their time. The private, non-profit school specializes in serving students on the autism spectrum.

For one little boy, the volunteer elves even sang the “ABC” song several times to help make him more comfortable hanging out with Santa.

Joshua School teacher Michelle Te Velde called the event “the best four hours ever.”

Jess Buskard, an instructional assistant at the school, added that a quiet environment and the chance to slowly warm up to Santa makes a holiday tradition accessible to children with special needs.

“It’s bringing that magic of the holidays to them,” she said.

Some children ran straight to Santa, giving hugs and clambering on his lap or sitting next to him. Others approached more cautiously, taking their time to decide how close they wanted to get.

Jonah Erickson, 8, was in the “I love Santa” camp.

“He was super nice,” said Jonah, who asked for more Hot Wheels tracks and cars because “you can never have enough.”

On the more cautious side was 9-year-old Evan Clark, who’s autistic and non-verbal. His dad, Dacono’s Arnie Clark brought him for the second year.

He said he wants to give Evan, who had been in an abusive situation before he and his wife adopted him, “all the experiences any other kid has.”

“He has a hard time just doing this,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like with a whole bunch of people around.”

Scott McNichol said he had stopped taking his son, 8-year-old Tyler, to visit Santa for several years because the lines and the noise overwhelmed him.

“He would get so upset, it wasn’t fun,” said McNichol, who lives in Lafayette.

He resumed the Santa visits three years ago when he found the sensory friendly event. On Sunday, Tyler asked Santa for his favorite toy cars.

“It’s a good chance for him to see Santa without all the other stuff,” he said.

Amy Bounds: 303-473-1341, boundsa@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/boundsa

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