Holiday tunes act as a soundtrack for shopping. Strings of lights twinkle in trees and hang from high ceilings.
And lines of parents wait with children dressed in cute Christmas outfits for the chance to take pictures with Santa and whisper in his ear.
The hustle and bustle at malls this time of year can quickly become overwhelming for anyone as the holidays loom closer. But for the nearly 2 million children nationwide with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental disabilities, a trip through the mall to visit Santa's workshop can be downright traumatic.
"They simply cannot often handle a loud, noisy, bright environment like at the mall," said Catherine Hughes, Director of Family Support Services for Family Behavioral Resources, headquartered in Greensburg.
To make sure children with sensory challenges can also share in the holiday tradition, a number of malls, businesses and other organizations are hosting special autism-friendly Santa events each season without the crowds and chaos.
"I remember as a child going to see Santa and getting to sit on Santa's lap and I know that for some of these kids, they'll never be able to experience that because of the setting that Santa's in," said Holly Maust of Hanover Township.
Maust's 5-year-old daughter, Sarah, was diagnosed about two and a half years ago with a form of autism known as pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and she has never been to visit Santa.
"I feel bad that she can't sit on Santa's lap and say, this is what I want for Christmas, and get that picture and have her have that memory," Maust said.
ASD and autism are names for complex disorders of brain development that often result in difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to the national science and advocacy organization, Autism Speaks. There are many different types of autism, including Rett syndrome, PDD-NOS and Asperger syndrome.
While no one cause is known, research has identified gene changes and risk factors during very early brain development that are associated with autism.
Parents typically expect that their kids can't wait to climb up on Santa's knee, but sometimes they don't want to, according to Hughes, whose 15-year-old son Christian was previously diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
"Maybe they don't even like the color red. It could be anything that sets them off," she said.
Hughes and Maust both know that triggers can easily lead to a meltdown while out in public, making the experience even more difficult.
"I suffered from a lot of stares and comments and often went home in tears after a public outing because people were judging my child," Hughes said. "I now think twice about it when I hear a child crying in a store. ... I think, 'Does that child need help, and does that parent need someone to talk to?' "
Hughes said she is blessed that her son has made dramatic progress over the years through treatment and practice, but parents of children with autism challenges can often feel isolated because everyday activities are difficult to work through.
As a volunteer and voice within the autism community locally and in the Pittsburgh area, Maust encourages other parents to spread awareness and advocate for more opportunities for their children.
"One out of 88 kids has some sort of form of autism, and I think it is becoming sort of a movement," Maust said of the many sensory-friendly events now taking place across the country, such as special yoga classes and movie screenings.
Creating opportunities such as special yoga classes, which many studios offer now, and sensory-friendly movie screenings would be cost-prohibitive for many parents without support from businesses. According to Autism Speaks, having a child with autism costs a family $60,000 a year on average.
This year, Maust and others in a Beaver County support group contacted the Beaver Valley Mall on Facebook, asking for a "sensitive" Santa event like ones at nearby shopping centers in Ross Township, Monroeville and Westmoreland.
Mall spokeswoman Lori Reda said it was good that the group brought it to the mall's attention, and officials are now hoping to plan an event.
"We're working with our photo company, Cherry Hill, to see if we can get something together for this year," Reda said. "If it's not something we can do this year then we'll definitely work on it for next year."
Hughes said these type of events show the public that children and teens on the autism spectrum should get to experience these things, too.
"They have the right to go out to eat, they have the right to go to Kennywood, they have the right to go to a movie and they have the right to go see Santa, just like anybody else," Hughes said.
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