Sensitive Santa Brings Christmas Cheer to Autistic Children

By Christine Valdez
Web Production Assistant

Gerriann LaGuardia (left) poses with Santa, Laura Koziel and Nicholas Barone at the 2013 Sensitive Santa. Photo Courtesy of Gerriann LaGuardia.
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.

Gerriann LaGuardia decided to take a different approach on the Christmas tradition. In order to provide some holiday cheer for autistic children, LaGuardia decided to start an event called Sensitive Santa, which she describes as a sensory-friendly Christmas experience for children with autism and other special needs. The event is meant to give children a private and intimate environment versus a visit with Santa in the mall.

Back in 2010, LaGuardia had an experience that inspired her to start Sensitive Santa — an encounter with a mother and her 7-year-old son.

“It was around a month before Christmas that I overheard his 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. “After the occupational therapist shared her concerns of that idea, it was then that I realized that this child was never going to meet Santa and have a picture taken with him. As a social worker, I was absolutely crushed inside. A child not able to meet Santa? A visit with Santa is one of those things you expect to happen, like when you turn 17 you expect to get your driver’s license. So 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 — avoiding the shopping mall filled with shoppers, long lines, loud music and bright lights that could trigger anxiety or confusion among the children. In order for children to visit Santa, LaGuardia has set it up so that instead of families waiting on line, they schedule their visit. During each visit, children will have 15 minutes to spend with Santa — interacting and taking pictures.

“What makes Sensitive Santa so different from the traditional Santa in the mall is quite a lot,” said LaGuardia. “Instead of waiting in a long line, children and their families arrive at their scheduled appointment time and wait to be escorted into the room where Santa is. Walking into the room, you’ll notice that there are minimal but enough decorations to give it a Christmas feel — no music, no bright or sparkling lights and absolutely no other children. Both the room and Santa are completely the child’s for their entire 15-minute appointment.”  

Each child gets 15 minutes because some children may take some time to react to the situation.

“Some children take time to warm up to the Man in Red and this time frame allows them the opportunity to relax and enjoy time with him,” LaGuardia said.

In order to visit Santa, appointments are required.

Along with their visit, children will have the opportunity to have their picture taken with Santa in a holiday card, receive a holiday gift bag and a goodie bag. According to LaGuardia, she usually surprises each child with an age-appropriate toy. Admission is $10, and all proceeds are donated to charity — a different charity each year. This year’s donations will be made to the American Liver Foundation in honor of LaGuardia’s grandmother.

The flyer for the 2014 Sensitive Santa. Courtesy of Gerriann LaGuardia.
Not only will the setup differ from the typical mall Santa, at Sensitive Santa the man wearing the red suit is usually a local firefighter. 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. He will also greet the children and follow the their wishes whether they want to sit on his lap or next to him for a picture.

This is the fifth year of Sensitive Santa — hosted at the Knights of Columbus in Jamesburg on Sunday, Dec. 14. LaGuardia is happy with the reception it has received. She expects it to be her most successful Sensitive Santa to date.

“In all honesty, I strongly believe that this year’s event is going to be the largest and most successful. I already have the most amount of children scheduled than I have in all the years I have hosted the event,” she said.

LaGuardia says that each year the event becomes more unforgettable and is an emotional experience for everyone involved.

She says she hopes to continue the event every holiday season.

“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.”

Those interested in attending this year’s Sensitive Santa can schedule an appointment by calling 908-217-5671. The deadline for appointments is Saturday, Dec. 13 at 7 p.m.