December is the time of the year when lights and decorations are up, and families flock to the mall for a visit with Santa. In Jamesburg, however, the traditional visit to the jolly man in red has taken a new approach…(S)ocial worker…Gerriann LaGuardia decided to take a different approach on the Christmas tradition…for children with autism and other special needs.
It all started “around a month before Christmas that I overheard (a) mother speaking with the occupational therapist her son was working with, about how fearful she was of taking him to the mall to visit with Santa,” LaGuardia said.
“…I realized that this child was never going to meet Santa and have a picture taken with him…A visit with Santa is one of those things you expect to happen…Why should the special needs population not have a visit with Santa?”
“That’s when I realized that families with children of autism really have difficulty fully enjoying the celebrations that holidays bring. So, I felt it was time for every child to enjoy a magical Christmas experience with Santa.”
With Sensitive Santa, LaGuardia wants to make the experience a comfortable one for children (by) avoiding the shopping mall filled with shoppers, long lines, loud music and bright lights that could trigger anxiety or confusion…LaGuardia has set it up so…families…schedule their visit…(C)hildren will have 15 minutes to spend with Santa. interacting and taking pictures…
Along with their visit, children will have the opportunity to have their picture taken with Santa in a holiday card (and) receive..gift bag(s)…Admission is $10, and (this year) all proceeds are donated to…the American Liver Foundation in honor of LaGuardia’s grandmother…This year, LaGuardia says that Rob Simonelli Jr., a member of the Helmetta Fire Department, will be donning the suit and interacting with the kids.
“I will continue the tradition of Sensitive Santa for children with autism for as long as I am able to,” said LaGuardia. “Each time I host the event, I am faced with new and different individuals. Because every autistic child has different sensory issues and various things that trigger their being uncomfortable in this given situation, I try and learn from these children to help make the following year more comfortable and successful for everyone.”