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Caring Santa Sensitive To Sensory Needs 

Santa greets a young child with special needs during a Caring Santa event last year.

Admittedly, despite the contagious festive spirit in the air, it is hard for most children and adults to put on a happy face while waiting in line during the holiday season—whether it be a line at retail store, a supermarket or even to meet Santa Claus.

Children with special needs will get a lucky break when the third Caring Santa event, designed to accommodate children with special needs, will take place at the Walt Whitman Shops this Sunday.

Caring Santa, a concept developed by the Simon Property Group, is an opportunity for children with special needs and their families to spend time with Santa Clause in a non-threatening, low-stimulation environment.

Many of the concepts created for the Caring Santa event were designed in conjunction with, an online hub and special needs community center for families who have children with special needs. According to Jacqueline Murray, director of marketing and digital communication for AbilityPath, the website was created as a comprehensive resource containing vetted, researched information to help assist families once a child or children are diagnosed.

To reduce sensory triggers at the Walt Whitman Shops this year, the event will begin at 9 a.m., before the mall opens, to ensure a limited crowd and fewer stimulations that can be disturbing to children with sensory issues. In addition, the mall will turn off all music, stop escalators, dim the lights and shut down fountains.

According to Nancy Gilbert, director of marketing and business development for the Walt Whitman Shops, children and their families will not have to wait in a line to meet Santa but rather will be assigned numbers, and will sit at different activity tables where kids can draw and hear holiday stories to numb the often tedious waiting process.

“We feel it’s important we’re able to provide this kind of experience for kids and also the families that they can’t always get elsewhere and that…most other families take for granted,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said the Caring Santa setup will be accessible from the main entrance to the shops outside of Saks Fifth Avenue where the Walt Whitman statue stands.

There are many benefits to providing children with special needs with this low-key, festive experience that many of their peers and their families are able to enjoy. Children with special needs, Murray said, often become overwhelmed in public places where there are crowds and are usually more sensitive to light and sound.

“They have a hard time waiting in line, and even typically developing children do, so we try to work with the malls to create a sensory friendly environment,” Murray said.

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