By danny restivo
Sitting on Santa Claus’ lap and asking for a toy is a simple joy many parents and children partake in during the holidays. But For a parent with an autistic child, it’s not as easy.
“A lot of families just can’t go to the mall and do that,” said Georgia Backus, director at the Rich Center for Autism at Youngstown State University.
On Friday, autistic children, parents and teachers had an opportunity to share that holiday tradition. WeatherTite Windows hosted the seventh annual Christmas party for autistic children, which included a North Pole visitor. The event took place at Willow Creek banquet center.
Backus said events such as this allow parents and children to interact without worrying how their kids may react, because everyone around understands.
“This allows kids to be kids,” she said.
Nearly 150 children danced to Christmas music, played with balloons, ran around, watched magic shows and enjoyed the company of other children.
It was a scene like any other children’s party.
“What’s really cool is that an outsider wouldn’t realize they had autism,” said Backus.
Cheryl Blakeman attended the event with her 15-year-old son, Mark. Blakeman serves as a service coordinator at the center where her son is a student. She said the event let him be a kid while she watched his enjoyment.
“It’s just a lot fun for all of us,” she said.
It wasn’t long before Mark and the other children mobbed Santa Claus as he walked through the banquet-hall doors. St. Nick slowly made his way to the front of the banquet hall before he handed out giant teddy bears to the children in attendance.
Mervyn Hollander, president of WeatherTite Windows, said last year’s event had only half the attendees as this year’s party, and he hopes to include more people for next year.
“I would like to have 1,000 kids here next year,” he said.
Hollander said he wanted to bring autism awareness to the community after he visited the Rich Center eight years ago.
He said many people don’t know about the various degrees of autism as well as the difficulty in diagnosing it. Hollander said none of his children or grandchildren has autism, but visiting the Rich Center made him aware of the issue.
“I told myself, ‘We have to do something,’” he said.
Though the event was enjoyed by many, teachers and staff members said they had to prepare the children for a large group setting as well as the music they would hear.
Marilyn Fielding, a special-education coordinator at Potential Development Programs, said the music was difficult for some of her students, because many children with autism have hearing sensitivity. Although it was a challenge, she said her children had coped well, and the party was more important.
“This is just a good social event to get them used to being around large groups of people,” she said. “It’s a good way for them to have fun.”