'From terror to joy': Sensitive Santa photo session a life-changing experience for little boy with autism

Photo: Shiloh's reaction to a regular photo session versus the Sensitive Santa session. Supplied
Photo: Shiloh's reaction to a regular photo session versus the Sensitive Santa session. Supplied 

For Bianka Costigan, taking her son Shiloh to the shopping centre to have his photo taken with Santa filled her with feelings of dread.

The four-and-a-half-year-old from Lisarow on New South Wales's Central Coast has autism, and the noise, lights and long wait was overwhelming and resulted in traumatic meltdowns.

Now with Westfield's Sensitive Santa sessions, both Bianka and Shiloh can look forward to a Santa experience, which has become a childhood rite of passage for so many.

Shiloh's reaction to a regular Santa photo experience.
Shiloh's reaction to a regular Santa photo experience. Photo: Supplied

"When he is feeling safe he is an incredibly affectionate, smart, kind and creative boy with a love of trucks, dinosaurs and hugs," says Bianka. But Shiloh's autism means that certain situations trigger negative reactions that cause others to look upon him unkindly.

"Shiloh has significant language, sensory and emotional regulating issues that require a steady flow of intervention and support," explains Bianka. 

"When he is overwhelmed (sounds too loud, lights too bright, textures of foods or clothes uncomfortable, struggling to process emotions) he melts down. For Shiloh this can look like screaming and running on the spot, yelling and dropping to the group while holding his ears, running in circles. This can last from 1 minute to 20 minutes and people can misinterpret his struggles as poor or naughty behaviour."

For 16 years Bianka has dreaded the Santa visit - she has an older son who also has autism.

"Despite the excitement expressed in the safety of our home or car, the minute we got to the shops, it was altogether too overwhelming an experience for the boys. By the time we got to Santa the boys were exhausted emotionally. As parents we were exhausted too. Trying to keep my beautiful kid regulated while people and other children made comments or got frustrated with him was really hard too. The photos were always photos where he was crying and the whole experience took almost 12 months to recover from."

The Sensitive Santa experience

"I booked a session at 8am - it was amazing! No busy crowds, and the other stores weren't open so there was less lighting and sound pollution, no fussing with a line, no having to express to Santa or the photographer that we were sorry for the time it was taking or the lack of eye-contact."

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Bianka says that Shiloh's reaction was very different from previous years.

"Shiloh stayed so calm. The fact that the session is longer than a normal Santa photo time meant that he had time to explore the set up, play with Santa, ask questions and warm up as he was ready. Knowing that the team there was ready to meet Shiloh wherever he was took so much pressure off. I was relaxed, which in turn, meant that Shiloh was more relaxed too."

The proof is in the pudding. Here's Shiloh with his sister Odeya, attending a Westfield Sensitive Santa experience. His face says it all - he feels safe and comfortable to interact with Santa.

Photo: supplied

Photo: Supplied

How Sensitive Santa differs from a regular Santa experience

Bianka says great efforts were made to ensure Shiloh felt empowered.

"Santa came to me first and asked what he could do or say to make Shiloh more comfortable and also what things to NOT do. This was awesome. We were immediately able to ask for quiet voices, for the bell to not be used and for Santa not to touch him until Shiloh touched him first."

The whole team was on board, with the photographers trained to ask the right questions of families.

"The photographers also asked me what I was wanting out of the session. I was able to express that I wasn't looking for a staged, smiling photo with Santa; rather a snapshot of a moment where Shiloh felt safe and calm with him. In the end Shiloh sat in between Santa and myself reading a book. I think the only person looking at the camera was my 11 month old baby at the time." 

She added, "To me, it was beautiful. I cried."

Photo: Westfield

Photo: Westfield

A transformative encounter

Although it was almost a year ago, Shiloh hasn't forgotten his rewarding experience with Santa.

"The experience was so positive that Shiloh has not stopped talking about Santa all year. In fact, today we saw a Santa while out and about, and Shiloh talked his ear off, gave him a high five and let him walk him to our car. This absolutely would not have happened without such a positive experience last year."

Bianka says she is so grateful that this now exists.

"As a parent, it has meant so much to be able to watch my son's relationship with Christmas move from a space of terror to absolute joy," she says, adding her thanks to Westfield "for valuing the need for something like this and making it so accessible."

The family have already booked again for this year.

See your local Westfield's website to find a Sensitive Santa location near you.