Family makes ‘Caring Santa’ visit an annual tradition for son with autism

Program allows families with special needs to have private, ‘sensory friendly’ sessions with Santa

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Santa Claus had special interactions Sunday with guests at The Avenues Mall through the “Caring Santa” program, which allows families with special needs children and adults to book private sessions with the big guy.

Linda Kaye called the experience a game-changer for her son, Stephen, who loves everything about Christmas and Santa Claus.

“He waits to put the Christmas tree up, and so then coming to see Santa and give him his list, he just looks forward to it every year,” Kaye said.

Stephen, 10, has autism. He was diagnosed before he turned 3 and taking pictures with Santa was not always easy.

“When he was younger, in particular, a crazy busy mall would have been just way too much for him,” Kaye explained.

Now, Stephen returns eagerly every year for what’s become his annual meet and greet with Old St. Nick at the Caring Santa event at the mall.

“There’s no pressure. You could have as much time as you need. When he was younger, we got to explore all of the props even before we got close to Santa. We got to touch everything that was there without feeling like anybody was going to be mad at us for doing that,” Kaye said.

Linda Kaye called the Caring Santa experience a game-changer for her son, Stephen, who loves everything about Christmas and Santa Claus. (Family photo)

For more than 90 minutes Sunday, Santa spent time with his guests in a quiet, sensory-friendly environment.

Stephen’s family always makes the surprise announcement on the morning of picture day.

“He ran around and was like, ‘I need to put my best clothes on. They look awesome. I can fix my hair,’” Kaye said.

The yearly magical moment means the world to him. Santa even read a book with Stephen and his 7-year-old Serajane.

“The more relaxed he is, the more likely we are to get that great photo,” Kaye said.

The Caring Santa event was just for pre-registered participants on Sunday. But Santa Claus will be at the Avenues Mall taking pictures with families all the way through Christmas Eve.

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