'Sensitive Santa' trial a hit with children

Charlie, 5, (right) who has autism, and his brother Nate, 3, meet Sensitive Santa at Highpoint Shopping Centre with ...
Charlie, 5, (right) who has autism, and his brother Nate, 3, meet Sensitive Santa at Highpoint Shopping Centre with their parents Sue West and Scott Jackman. Photo: Eddie Jim

Having her photo taken with Santa is a treasured childhood memory for Sue West.

But for her five-year-old son Charlie, who has autism, lining up in a noisy, crowded shopping centre to have his photo taken with a strange man had previously led to tears and meltdowns.

While she would have loved a picture of Charlie and his three-year-old brother Nate with Santa, Ms West did not want to cause her son distress.

And she didn't allow herself to become too excited when she heard about a ''Sensitive Santa'' program at Highpoint Shopping Centre, which offered families a chance to book in a 20-minute appointment with a well-briefed Santa in a quiet environment before the shops opened.

''I think I was protecting myself a little bit, I just thought, we'll try it and it will be great if it works,'' she said.

Highpoint general manager Scott Crellin, whose son Cooper has autism, decided to trial a Sensitive Santa for the first time this year after reading about similar programs in the US.

He worked with the autism support group Amaze to develop the program, which included a questionnaire for parents to fill out so Santa understood children's interests and any potential triggers for them to become distressed. A series of pictures emailed to parents ahead of time helped them brief children on what to expect, and gave children the best chance of a successful meeting.

For Ms West and her partner Scott Jackman, the result was a beautiful Santa picture with their boys that will be shared with many relatives and friends over the next few days.

Charlie asked Santa to bring him an Octopod toy - which Octonauts use to travel under the sea - and even had a few questions, including why Santa wears gloves. (Turns out it's cold in the North Pole and hot in Australia, so Santa needs the gloves to keep an even temperature.)


Ms West said it was a very happy and emotional moment to see Charlie bond with Santa, and secure a much-loved photo.

''In the bigger picture, I was incredibly moved by the thought and care put into this initiative. There was sensitivity and respect and a commitment to putting one of those childhood rites of passage within reach of families who love someone on the spectrum.''

A total of 28 families met Sensitive Santa this year, and Mr Crellin said the feedback had been overwhelmingly positive. He wants to offer the experience to more families next year, and hopes other shopping centres will take up the challenge.

Santa's representative Blair Short, who was carefully chosen for his calming presence, said it had not been too difficult to put his young charges at ease.

''Children with autism have a very specific world and if you want to be their friend you have to be part of that world, otherwise you're scary. You need to let them come to you and incorporate you into what they see as real.''