Sensitive Santa helping special needs families capture Christmas memories

Major supermarket rolls out 'quiet hour' to help shoppers with autism

The photo sessions run outside of the centre’s general opening hours and the centre’s music is turned off and lighting reduced. For eight-year-old Liam, going to a shopping centre — especially at Christmas time — can be an overwhelming experience. “I started it originally just to get some extra money but then found I really enjoyed talking to the children and hearing what they wanted for Christmas so I just keep coming back each year,” he said. So when she discovered Westfield shopping centres had implemented Sensitive Santa, she decided to give it a go. (ABC Radio Canberra: Penny Travers)
Mr Clark said the key to being a successful Santa was being truthful.”When they ask you a question and you’re answering back it’s got to be natural otherwise they pick up on it,” he said. Photo:
Visiting shopping centres had previously been a stressful experience for Amy and Liam. “What meant the most to me was that Liam, for the first time, was able to tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas, and that was just the best feeling in the world for me,” Ms Palmer said. “There was no crowd, no noises, and it was a peaceful, relaxing 15 minutes,” Ms Palmer said of her family’s photo session with Sensitive Santa. And for the first time in years, Ms Palmer has been able to go to the centre with her children again. (ABC Radio Canberra: Penny Travers)
And what is it that the kids are asking for this Christmas?”Yo-yos and rainbow unicorns — it’s interesting to see how it changes each year,” Mr Clark said. “About 12 months ago I’d attempted a shopping experience and I got some very negative comments and feedback from shoppers in the shopping centre and it was just a horrible situation,” she said. “Liam actually sat next to Santa and he held his sister while they were taking the photos and I was so surprised. “The last time I got a photo of Liam with Santa he was one month old,” Ms Palmer said. (Supplied: Westfield Woden)
The Calm Room opened at Woden last month, offering a relaxing, private space for children and adults when the experience becomes overwhelming. Calm Room offers respite to overwhelmed shoppers Ms Palmer and her family can also do some Christmas shopping this year in relative peace after she asked Woden Shopping Centre to install a Calm Room. “We can be in there for as long as we need to until the child is relaxed, self-regulated and ready to go again, and then we can go and finish what we were doing.” The Canberra boy has autism and sensory processing disorder. “I came home and cried and I said to my husband, ‘we need a calm space in shopping centres like the one we have here at home for Liam’.”

The Calm Room offers a quiet, private space for shoppers to take a break and relax. “When you put that Santa outfit on you sort of become Santa, and if you go out there to have fun with the kids like I do, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy it — I’d recommend it to anyone.”

George Clark grows his own beard to play the part of Santa Claus. “The favourite one is, ‘Are you the real Santa?’ The worst thing you could say is yes because they know very well that you’re not. “I got a photo of all three of my kids with Santa and I just walked out of there crying because I finally had a Christmas photo to be proud of.”And for Liam, he was excited to be able to meet Santa. Mr Clark enjoys being Santa so much that he now keeps his hair long and grows a beard to really get into character. “Christmas crowds are just a massive overload; the bright lights, loud noises, high-pitched sounds all become a very distressing and upsetting situation,” Liam’s mother Amy Palmer explained. “If we’re halfway through doing grocery shopping and there’s a meltdown, instead of pushing the trolley away and going, ‘I can’t do this’, we can leave the trolley and go into the Calm Room,” she said. “But if you’re honest and say, ‘Santa’s very busy this time of year and he asks special people to come in and help him do the work’, they accept that.”

Brothers Henry and Niko enjoy telling Santa George what they want for Christmas. Becoming Sensitive Santa and enjoying itGeorge Clark has been playing Santa Claus for eight years, and has been a Sensitive Santa at two Canberra shopping centres for the past three. (Supplied: Amy Palmer)
For years he and his mother had wanted to have a photo with Santa Claus at a shopping centre, but each year they tried Liam became overwhelmed and distressed.
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(Supplied: Westfield Woden) ABC Radio Canberra


Penny Travers


December 03, 2017 15:34:22

Liam, Brooklynn and Jensen-Jai enjoy meeting Santa Claus and having a photo taken for the first time.