'Caring Santa' for kids with special needs

The Avenues closes mall to help create a more sensory friendly environment

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - All children, at one time at least, want to meet Santa and give him their list. Sunday morning parents of special needs children got their own one-on-one time with the big guy in red.

"Caring Santa" at the Avenues Mall is an event geared towards children with physical and mental disabilities, so that they too can tell Santa Clause what they want under the tree.

"This is our first time meeting Santa," said Regina Bradley, parent of children with Down Syndrome.

Ayden and Abigail haven't been in the country for very long. only about four months.

"I like that they take their time with them," said Bradley.

The brother and sister were adopted from the Ukraine by Bradley. For their first Christmas in America, Bradley wanted a photo with Santa.

"We're very grateful that they offer this kind of thing because it is so rushed around the holidays, so to have something where you can calm down and incorporate the kids a little bit more, it just makes it easier on us parents," Bradley said.

Sunday morning the Avenues Mall carved out an hour for families of special needs kids to come, take their time, and say hello to Santa Clause.

"It makes me feel good and I'm glad I get to have these memories with my son," said Lisa Neubauer.

Lisa Neubauer's son Jakob has Asberger's Syndrome. This is the first time she's been able to bring her son to the mall during the holiday shopping season.

"He has problems with lots of noise. He has a meltdown sometimes when it gets to crowded and crazy," Neubauer said.

For this event the mall has tried to eliminate sensory triggers that could cause stress for the children and their families. They turned off the music, they shut down the escalator and they've also turned off the fountain by Santa's exhibit.

"It's incredibly important that they feel comfortable, because that's how you're going to get the best photos and we want them to have this time with Santa because it is so precious," said Lindsey Von Hoven, Avenues mall.

The event is growing. Last year was the first at the Avenues Mall, and about 50 children came out. This year, the mall expected 75 kids.

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