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Sensory-Friendly Santa Experience

Southlands in Aurora offers a Santa meet-and-greet event for children with sensory processing disorders and autism.

It’s the time of year when kids eagerly line up, lists in hand, awaiting face-time with the jolly man in red. But for some children, visiting Santa can seem chaotic, stressful and downright terrifying. That’s why Southlands and the Autism Society of Colorado have teamed up to bring Colorado families a Sensory-Friendly Santa Photo Experience on Saturday, December 12. The special event, for children with sensory processing disorders and autism, offers a safe and welcoming environment for children to visit with Santa. Families are also invited to stay and enjoy a sensory-friendly viewing of The Good Dinosaur at AMC Southlands 16 following the event.

This is the third year Southlands and the Autism Society of Colorado have hosted this event, and they”re passionate about providing the best experience possible. “Nobody else in the community is doing this and the reaction has been amazing,” says Joyce Rocha, director of marketing for Southlands. “I remember one mom who was moved to tears to see her child react the way he did with Santa,” she recalls. “He”d never been able to have that experience and we made it possible for him.”

The holiday tradition of sitting on Santa’s lap can be overwhelming for a child with autism, but this event gives children a chance to have a true holiday experience like that of their peers. “Kids in the autism community tend to feel socially isolated and families may feel the need to stay home,” says Erica deDufour, programs manager for Autism Society of Colorado. “By us accommodating their needs, we”re providing them the opportunity to get out and have fun,” she says. “We have a fidget station, coloring books and kids don’t have to wait quietly in line—it’s a very accepting, open environment.”

Santa and all of his helpers, and event volunteers, have undergone Autism 101 training in preparation for the event, so that they can best meet the needs of their little visitors. In fact, this training makes a big difference and it’s one of the reasons why this event has been such a success in the past. “Last year, there was a little boy who wanted nothing to do with Santa, so—remembering his training—Santa got up from his chair and sat on the floor next to him,” deDufour explains. “The boy eventually took a picture with him and the family got to have that experience with Santa for the first time.”

The Sensory-Friendly Santa Photo Experience will offer a dimly lit, noise-reduced setting for children to enjoy a private meet-and-greet with Santa. The event will take place on Saturday, December 12 from 8 to 10am at Southlands in Aurora—on Main Street between American Eagle Outfitters and The Children’s Place. The photo session is limited to children with sensory processing disorders and autism and it’s complimentary; however, Santa photo packages are available for purchase. The sensory-friendly movie showing of The Good Dinosaur will begin at 10am at AMC Southlands 16—and will be shown with the lights on and the sound turned down. Attendees are invited to get up and dance, walk, shout or sing as they please. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the event.

In order to prepare for Santa’s visitors, Southlands asks that families RSVP in advance, but if you forget, that’s ok, you’re still welcome to join in on the fun. To participate, please RSVP by Friday, December 11 by 4pm to (303) 903-1627 or

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