Special Santa visiting Southlands mall Saturday for children with autism

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AURORA | On a foggy Thursday afternoon, a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas got a special helper. 

For almost a decade, Southlands mall staff have organized a Santa meet-n-great specifically for children on the autism “spectrum” in an environment tailored to be calming and chill. On Saturday morning, the lights will be lowered, background noise turned down.

And “Santa John” Bujaci, a real, bearded Santa, will spend two hours for photo ops with the kids and meticulously enumerating their Christmas lists. 

“Being Santa — being kind, embracing all, the whole spirit of Christmas is the idea,” Danny Combs told him. Combs, President of the Autism Society of Colorado, was there to help. He’d booked his afternoon explaining how best to interact with autistic children and tailor an environment for kids who might hate the humming of a computer, let alone the cacophony of a room filled with squealing kids, hyped on Christmas.

Bujaci nodded. It’s his second year of spreading cheer at the Southlands mall, he said. He loves being there for autistic children in particular.

Unlike the usual advice Bujaci knows well — despite the protests of parents, crying kids sometimes really don’t want to sit on his lap, for example — hanging out with severely autistic children requires some specific cues. Combs advised him to understand children may be distracted, to be gentle with them, to listen closely to families. 

But most of all, Combs said even getting to the event can be a “momentous step” for some severely autistic children for whom getting out of the house comes with a slew of anxieties and challenges.

The event is limited to kids on the spectrum, but it usually sells out, according to Joyce Rocha, the mall marketing director.

And people may not understand how many Americans have autism, Combs said.

He said 40 years ago, about 1 in 10,000 Americans was autistic. That’s since spiked to 1 in 145.

For children alone, that number is estimated at 1 in 59, according to advocacy group Autism Speaks.

The disorder impacts people in wildly different ways, but issues interacting with other people are a defining trait. People with autism struggle with spoken language and performing social cues that most take for granted, such as making correct facial expressions and using euphemisms and expressing one’s self. Other people might not understand where they’re coming from. Crowds are difficult. 

For children with autism, being around other children can be difficult to the point of painful.

But Thursday, Combs explained those challenges are compounded for a subset of folks who feel sensations much stronger than the rest of us. The texture of a shirt may hurt, or a car door slamming. Even the white noise of an air conditioning unit could cause discomfort or pain.

This so-called sensory processing disorder would normally preclude children from getting to visit Santa.

Rocha said the Southlands team decided a decade ago that kids like these needed their own space to snap photos with Santa. In all that time, it’s the only sensory processing disorder-Santa event in the state, to their knowledge.

But the sensory-lax spaces are proliferating in other states —particularly in North Carolina, where Combs is from.

His own son is on the spectrum, he said, so he’s intimately aware of how autistic children act in situations like a crowded mall. But Combs also said people with autism are some of the smartest, and kindest, people he knows.

Santa John will welcome area autistic children at the Southlands mall, in a space near the ice rink, Saturday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. The event is free.

But he also said adults with autism are welcome as well. In fact, last year, one adult person on the spectrum visited him, he said. They were mostly concerned with Santa getting his lunch break. It’s a busy time of year for him, after all.