Family Respite Care Services makes Santa visits safe for special needs children

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Shelly Birkelo
Monday, November 24, 2014

JANESVILLE--While 7-year-old Cullen Andrews was escorted to his visit with Santa, he tightly held on to the hand of a Family Respite Care Services volunteer for extra reassurance.

After sitting down on Santa's lap, he wouldn't talk. He just stared. Then Santa whispered something into his ear.

A few minutes later, Cullen warmed up to Jolly Old Saint Nick and told him what he wanted for Christmas. He had his picture taken with Santa.

Then, he quietly got up and, with a smile, walked back to his parents, Josh and Heather Andrews, who were accompanied by Cullen's brother, Cayden, 9.

“It felt amazing and something we normally don't get to experience with him. As a mom, it just melted my heart and was one of those moments I'll never forget,” Heather said.

She was referring to last year's Sensory Safe Santa Visit offered by Family Respite Care Services to children with special needs and their siblings.

The third annual event is scheduled on three consecutive Fridays—Dec. 5, 12 and 19 in Beloit, Evansville and Janesville, respectively, said Whitney Walraven, executive director.

“It's an opportunity for children with special needs to have that chance to visit with Santa without the exterior noises, long lines and crowded areas,” she said.

A mall experience may have commotion that can send a special needs child into a sensory meltdown that doesn't allow him or her to process everything accurately, Walraven said.

“We offer this so children get a one-on-one time with Santa. They get to move at their own pace, and we give them the time they need.

"Santa is very patient and talks in a very calm tone. There's no extra sounds, lights or long lines allowing the child to have that opportunity at their own comfort level,” she said.

Family Respite Care relies on volunteers to staff the visits and donations to fund them, and it is seeking help this year, Walraven said.

The members of the Andrews family of Janesville are looking forward to this year's Sensory Safe Santa Visit. Heather said the family wouldn't miss the event.

Cullen, who was diagnosed with autism in January 2013, could never handle a visit to Santa at the mall, his mother said.

Autism is a group of complex disorders of brain development characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.

“By the time we'd wait in line and get up to see Santa, with the other kids crying around him and so much action in the mall during the holidays, we would have never even made it to attempt to sit on Santa's lap,” she said.

“Everything overwhelms him. He can't handle being in large, congested groups or around a lot of noises. He immediately starts shutting down and falls apart--screaming and throwing things. It makes everybody else around him pretty miserable,” Heather said.

Attending Sensory Safe Santa “allows our family to be able to participate and create some memories we can talk about down the road that are positive,” she said.

Before last year, Cullen had never visited a Santa publicly.

Heather's father always dressed up as Santa and visited the Andrews home.

“When he died, we lost that tradition,” Heather said.

Now, the Andrews family has a new family tradition, thanks to Sensory Safe Santa.

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