BY Jordan Cohen
Visits to Santa at the mall tend to be noisy affairs with flashing lights, loud music, boisterous “ho-ho-hos” and a number of attention-getting distractions.
Sunday morning at the Eastwood Mall was different.
There was no music, no lights except those on the main concourse Christmas tree, minimal noise and a gentle, soft-spoken Santa — just what was needed to make these children comfortable because they are autistic.
“All the lights and sounds can be intimidating and disturbing to them, which is why we wanted to make this setting calm and peaceful,” said Aundrea Cika, director of the Mahoning Valley office of the Autism Society of Ohio. Cika said the society and the mall set up the special Santa visit for early Sunday morning before most of the stores opened to keep distractions at a minimum.
Cika said parents registered 56 children for the visit, the first of its type for the society. The registration form asked the parents to list three items for their children’s Christmas list so Santa could talk about them as they sat on his lap.
“This type of environment allows them to participate in holiday activities on their own terms,” said Vera Ceglarek of West Farmington, whose 12-year old son, Elliot, is autistic but has some communication capabilities. Ceglarek said she prepared her son by talking often about the visit well in advance.
“I’m encouraged that there is more awareness for children with special needs,” she said. “This has been really positive.”
It apparently was positive for Elliot as well. “Merry Christmas,” he said with a smile.
Lynn Novello of Mineral Ridge was equally appreciative. One of her children, 4-year-old Mario, is autistic and does not speak.
“I know when he’s happy because he laughs a lot, and he laughed today when he was with Santa,” said Novello, a part-time respiratory therapist. She proudly displayed a photo of Mario smiling as he sat on Santa’s lap. “I love to support him,” she said.
The society also invited students from the Fairhaven School. Cheryl Falatic of Howland brought her 28-year-old son Chris, who works at the Fairhaven workshop.
“This is wonderful because there is no noise or confusion so special needs children can have their own time,” she said.
Cika, who also teaches a religion class at Warren’s Blessed Sacrament Church for seventh-graders, brought her students to serve as “Santa’s elves” to help the children play games and listen to stories before they met with Santa. Cika said the games, such as bowling and ring toss, were donated by the Jewish Community Center.
And how did Santa deal with all of this?
“You start by recognizing that they’re all individuals,” said Santa Claus who has made stops at the mall for four years. “Some are very articulate and others can’t communicate, but they do smile.” He said only one child refused to sit on his lap.
“That can happen with any kid,” he said
At that moment, a 6-year-old boy who had just finished his Santa visit turned around and held out his hands for a hug. Santa quickly obliged.
“I like all the hugs I’m getting,” the sensitive Santa said.