Sensitive Santa

By April Morganroth

Sensory-friendly St. Nick visits Anthem Outlets

A very special kind of Santa is returning to The Outlets at Anthem.

The twinkling lights, holiday cheers, dazzling displays and the booming music coupled with large crowds aren’t things most would even bat an eye at this time of year—unless, of course, you or a family member happen to be on the autism spectrum. In which case, things can easily and often do go awry very quickly.

Something as simple as a visit to Santa during the holiday season can become a nightmare for a family with an autistic member. In fact, according to the Autism Speaks Arizona spokeswoman Heidi Naranjo, many families forego the Santa experience simply because it’s so traumatic.

So often, siblings also miss out on holiday experiences, such as visiting Santa’s workshop in between Children’s Place and Polo Ralph Lauren on the mall’s east side.

The Outlets at Anthem are making it a little easier for those families. From 9 to 11 a.m. Sunday, December 8, families with special-needs children are invited to visit the sensory-friendly Santa Workshop to see the big guy.

Space is limited and slots fill up fast, according to Outlets at Anthem General Manager Christina Henning. To sign up, visit, click on the “Santa Cares: A Sensory-Friendly Santa Photo Experience” tab to be directed to the Eventbrite signup.

“We just want to let families know this is a free event and they are free to bring cameras, cellphones or tablets to snap their own photos. We will be offering a professional photo package for a fee at the event,” Henning says.

“For those families who can’t make that time slot, or if spots fill up, they are still more than welcomed to come and see the sensory-friendly Santa, just it will be with the general public. We will, of course, let Santa know he has a special package in line to see him.”

Naranjo says Autism Speaks and Cherry Hill Programs partnered with malls and shopping centers nationwide to dim Santa’s workshop lights, lower the sound of nearby tinkering elves and extend the time each child can spend with Santa. Many autistic children need to warm up to Jolly Ol’ St. Nick, before approaching him. Santa will even get down to a child’s level on his famous Christmas red carpet in his shop, just to make an autistic child and family feel welcomed.

“All families with children with autism and other special needs can enjoy the time-honored tradition of a visit with Santa, in a more subdued and calmer environment,” Naranjo says.

“We open up Santa’s workshop, one day out of the season, two hours early, specifically for families with sensory and autism needs,” Henning says.

Autism stats

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s last report in 2014, roughly 1 in 71 children aged 8 were identified with an autism spectrum disorder in Arizona. It is 15% higher than its previous study where 1 in 59 children aged 8, were identified with ASD. Although the CDC estimates that number to be closer to 1 in 59 in Arizona, a spokesperson did say it can change once the new report is released in 2020.

“Even though the rates of autism in Arizona seem to have gotten better from the last report, it is important to realize these numbers are only estimates,” said Dr. Christopher Smith, Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center vice president and research director.

“Given these rates are only based on 8-year-old children and people continue to get diagnosed with ASD after age 8, it is probably most accurate to consider the rates to be between 1.5 and 2% of the population.”

However, Smith says the importance still lies with early detection and diagnosis. The CDC reports many children with ASD typically start to show autism symptoms and signs by age 3 and are diagnosed many times before entering kindergarten. But, some children remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed due to several factors, including lack of access to medical providers, long waitlists in Arizona, slowly developing symptoms or subtle signs easily missed by pediatricians, parents and community partners who have limited, little or no experience and knowledge about autism.

SAARRC and the CDC report there are still disparity gaps in diagnosing children with ASD. Boys are 3.2 times more likely to be diagnosed with ASD because parents will initiate a conversation with doctors about commonly thought typical-boy behaviors in school, which are later identified as ASD behaviors. Caucasian children are 1.6 times more likely to be diagnosed than Hispanic American children and African-American children are 1.9 times more likely to be diagnosed than Hispanic American children due to environmental factors.

More than 90% of parents with ASD children had developmental concerns by the time their children were 3 years old, according to the CDC. Of that 90%, only 34% received comprehensive developmental evaluations by age 3. Many children don’t receive developmental services until after kindergarten starts.

The Arizona autism community is discussing lowering the age of diagnosis to help target and address ASD services early on. Now Arizona children cannot have an official diagnosis until kindergarten. By then, many struggling families have given up on “normal” holiday traditions.

This translates to and dictates how families maneuver and manage ASD symptoms during normal family functions, such as holiday traditions, like visiting Santa, Naranjo reported.

She adds autism looks different in every child, which adds to the confusion and delay of an ASD diagnosis.

“What might bug or traumatize one autistic child, may not another,” Naranjo says. “Those little issues, like an A/C blowing too hard or lights are too bright, often change and morph as children age and learn to manage triggers.”

Sometimes new triggers emerge as children age or environments change. Compounding these issues is the evolving definitions and diagnostic codes in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, also known as the DSM-5. Naranjo says this complicates how and when children are diagnosed because “autism truly looks different in every child and often, a child with autism looks normal. It’s not like a child with down syndrome or MS, where there is a physical and noticeable feature. Autism is more of a neurological, mental and socioemotional disorder. It’s something you just can’t ‘see,’ so to speak.”

Familiar Santa

Anthem’s Santa knows every child well and knows what the children need, Naranjo says.

“His elves have taught him that sometimes he needs to wait for a child to come to him, and it could take 10 or more minutes before an autistic child is ready to walk up to him,” Naranjo adds.

“Santa also knows some autistic children simply want to admire him from afar and are perfectly content with doing so. This special time at the Outlets in Anthem is designed specifically for a full family experience where the autistic child, siblings and entire family can experience the wonder and awe of Christmas and Santa in a less stressed and simulated environment before the shopping crowds show up.”

As for Santa’s special holiday wish this year?

“Ho, Ho, Ho, my wish for children who visit me this year is to show kindness, show politeness and show a smile to each other,” he says.

Above all, he wants to promote holiday cheer in the eyes of families who previously were not able to experience a visit to his workshop.

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