For onlookers, it may have seemed a confusing sight: Santa laying on his belly on the ground, snow globe in hand. But for 6-year-old Brayden Deely and his mom Erin Deely, it was the most natural thing in the world.
Brayden has autism, which usually makes it difficult for him to feel comfortable meeting new people in situations such as this. But on November 22, the South Park mall in Charlotte, North Carolina was quiet and Santa knew exactly how to make Brayden feel comfortable.
The event was called Caring Santa and it was put together by Autism Speaks with Simon Property Group, Inc., the Noerr Programs Corporation and AbilityPath. On this day, parents of children with special needs could make appointments to meet with Santa — skipping the stressful long lines that would have been too much for Brayden. The mall was closed to create a calm, quiet environment and Santa had time to spend connecting one-on-one with each child.
For the Deelys, those accommodations made all the difference in the world. Erin Deely spoke to Babble about the experience and explained how the magical moment went down:
“We arrived at our appointment time and they were ready for us. I stood with Brayden nearby while he pretended to check out some props. After a minute or so, Santa wound up a musical snow globe, put it in the middle of the floor and went back to his seat. Intrigued, Brayden crawled on his hands and knees over to the globe and started playing with it.”
And then Santa did something that would melt even Scrooge’s cold, cold heart:
“Santa slowly slid to the floor, got on his stomach and made his way to Brayden. They started playing together yet no words had been spoken between them. Everyone there stayed quiet and just let them play while pictures were being taken.”
The experience took about 15 minutes in total, as it took some time for Brayden to warm up to Santa initially and to start engaging with him through eye contact and smiles. But Erin is forever grateful for those who made the opportunity possible.
“The whole event was a judgement-free zone,” she explained. “There was no pressure to ‘perform’ for the camera. That takes a lot of anxiety away for the children and the parents.”
For Erin, the event offered a gift many take for granted — a traditional photo with Santa for their annual Christmas card. “If [Autism Speaks] didn’t hold events like this, Brayden would have to miss out. I know so many families are grateful for the opportunity and I hope that more events are held around the country.”
Erin says she hopes this story inspires people to host events similar to Caring Santa. Describing the response to it as “surreal,” she also says she hopes “it shows other parents with special-needs children that their children can absolutely participate in these holiday traditions.”
The Caring Santa is coming to malls all over the country December 6. To find out if he’ll be visiting your town, click here.More On