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A 'sensory-safe' Santa experience

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Neil Johnson
Friday, December 20, 2013

JANESVILLE—Renee and Troy Tarnutzer wondered Friday night if their son, Alex, would ever have a moment with Santa.

In the past, typical Santa Claus situations—shopping mall photo-ops and grocery bell-ringer Santas—have intimidated Alex. He's only sat on a mall Santa's lap once, when he was 1 year old.

Alex, 9, has Asperger disorder, which is associated with autism spectrum disorder. Like some children with Asperger's, Alex can struggle in unfamiliar environments with a lot of noise or intense activities.

“The big lines at the shopping mall Santa, all the activity and transitions, it could never fit with Alex's needs. He's still fearful of Santa,” Renee said.

Friday, the Tarnutzers tried something new: Sensory-Safe Santa night, a Santa Claus photo event at Emmanuel Free Methodist Church in Janesville. Sensory-Safe Santa, which was organized by Janesville-based Family Respite Care Services, is an annual event that gives children with autism spectrum disorder and other sensory or developmental disorders a low-key, controlled Santa experience.

 At the event, children can have their photos taken with Santa. They can sit on his lap or talk to him if they want, even read their gift wish list—but they're not forced. They go one at a time; there are no lines, no loud holiday music and Santa doesn't greet children with a loud, jovial “Ho-Ho-Ho!”

In the days leading up to Santa night, Alex had flip-flopped on the idea of seeing Santa. One day, he seemed intent on tackling an interaction with the big, white-bearded guy. The next day, he'd resigned himself to have his Asperger's therapist, Sam, hand Santa his typed wish list while he watched from a distance.

“In the whole scheme of things, if Alex never sits by Santa, it's OK. But it kind of breaks your heart that he's never felt able to do that,” Renee said Friday before Alex's meet-and-greet with Santa.

“I think if Alex even sat down by Santa, I'd cry. It'd be the best Christmas gift in the world,” she said.

On Friday, Family Care Respite Services Executive Director Whitney Walraven, led about 30 children in and out of the church foyer. There, on a bench in front of decorated tree, sat Santa, a Beloit-area businessman named Dave who declined to give his last name.

Walraven said many of the parents who brought their children have had troubled experiences in the past.

“Going to the shopping mall to see Santa can be very overwhelming for the child with autism or other disorders, and also very stressful for the parent,” she said. “This specific Santa visit is to allow the parents to get a photo of their child with Santa without all of the additional stressors.”

You could hardly hear Santa's hushed conversations with the children who sat with him Friday.

There was Jessie, a 4-year-old Janesville boy who has speech and communication delays, who cuddled right up to Santa. Jackson, a 5-year-old boy who seemed more content to sit a few feet away, only made brief eye contact as Santa read his wish list.

Both boys smiled for the volunteer photographer's camera and even thanked Santa for their moment with him.

Then an unexpected breakthrough came.

Alex Tarnutzer came walking out to see Santa with his wish list in his hand. His therapist, Sam, and Walraven stood off to the side as the cameras caught the moment. They could barely hide their excitement. 

Alex, as his parents had hoped, had finally decided to sit next to Santa after all. Alex read his entire wish list, politely thanked the soft-spoken Santa, and went quietly on his way. 

Afterward, Alex talked about his courage and change of heart.

“I haven't sat by Santa since I was a baby,” Alex said. “Santa just put his arm around me and asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I told him I want green Sour Patch candy canes. It was really good. Really cool.”


Last updated: 10:16 pm Friday, December 20, 2013


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