SOUTH PORTLAND — Normally Santa Claus doesn’t hold back with the girls and boys who come to visit and share their wishes with him in the days leading up to Christmas.
He roars out his signature “Ho, ho, ho” in a deep, booming voice, lets his belly bounce like a bowl full of jelly and flings his arms out in welcome.
But during four Sunday mornings this holiday season, he is toning it down for some children who would otherwise find a visit with him unendurable. For the second year in a row, the Maine Mall is turning down the lights and the noise to offer Caring Claus Sundays with Santa for children with autism and sensory conditions.
“I don’t do the giant ‘Ho, ho, ho’ (but) use a nice even tone,” said Santa, holding court Sunday at Maine’s largest and busiest indoor shopping center.
The special sessions give children one-on-one time with the world’s most famous present distributor, far from the mall’s usual hustle and bustle. The lights are turned down and surrounding stores turn off their music or remain closed.
The event draws children and some adults from across the state and across and the autism spectrum. This year Santa’s court, which opened Nov. 8, was set up near the mall entrance closest to the JCPenney store so a long walk through the mall would not be required to reach the main attraction, said Stefanie Millette, the mall’s marketing manager.
Autism is a neurological disorder that affects brain function, impairing social, verbal and nonverbal skills with varying degrees of severity. The number of people diagnosed with the disorder has risen sharply in recent years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one in 88 children in the United States was diagnosed with autism in 2008 compared with one in150 children in 2000. The rise is in part because of changes in diagnostic practices, but whether its prevalence has increased has not been determined.
The cause of the disorder is not known, although scientists believe there is a genetic link. There is no cure but early intervention can greatly improve a child’s development.
In Maine about 2,900 children between the ages of 2 and 20 have been diagnosed, said Heidi Bowden, executive director of the Maine Autism Alliance.
She said Caring Claus Sundays have made a big difference for families of children with autism and sensory issues.
“It allows them to enjoy the simplest pleasures of the holiday,” said Bowden.
She said her own autistic daughter, Addie, 14, didn’t visit Santa until the mall started offering the sessions last year.
During Sunday’s session, the children displayed the typical reactions when spotting the man in the red and white suit. They either sauntered up and jumped onto his lap or took one horrified look and turned away in terror.
It was touch-and-go as Brendon Samprakos, the son of Kristen and Ed Samprakos of Portland, waited to visit Santa.
The 5-year-old turned away and buried his head in his father’s coat as the two approached Santa. But Santa won him over and soon Brendon was grinning. The visit was deemed a success by his parents.
“If it was loud and chaotic, Brendon would have requested to leave,” said his mother.
Isabella Sherman, 6, daughter of Karyn Lasante of Saco, slowly ambled up to Santa, clambered into his lap and clung to his belly like a baby opossum to its mother. Isabella patted the white fur of Santa’s suit and sniffed at his whiskers. Her mother said Isabella responds to the world through touch and smell.
“She is a big hugger,” Lasante said.
Lasante told the organizers that Caring Claus Sunday gave Isabella a chance to communicate with Santa in her own way.
“Thank you so much for doing this,” she said.
The final Caring Claus Sundays session is scheduled for 8:30 to 9:45 a.m. Dec. 1.
Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]