Malls, retailers find a place for children with autism

Erin Deely used to avoid holiday shopping with her 7-year-old son Braydon because the sights and sounds of the season overwhelmed him -- as they do with many children with autism.

However, after meeting a specially trained Santa Claus in 2015, the youngster got into the holiday spirit. This year, he “told me that I needed to drive faster to get to the North Pole,” said Erin.

Braydon is one of a growing number of children with special needs who are being catered to by mall operators and some retailers. In his case, a Santa at the South Park Mall in North Carolina went on the floor with the child after Braydon refused to sit on Santa’s lap. Erin said Braydon goes on the floor when he needs to feel safe. A photo of the 2015 encounter went viral. 

This year, Braydon met the same Santa as last year (see video below) Their encounter was punctuated by a lively discussion about “Toy Story” because the Braydon brought his Woody and Buzz action figures with him. Santa repeated dialogue from the classic animated movie with the youngster.

Mall Santa goes above and beyond for boy with autism | Autism Speaks by Autism Speaks on YouTube

Simon Property Group (SPG), the country’s second-largest commercial landlord, is now offering children the chance to get their pictures taken with a specially trained “Caring Santa” at 109 malls, an increase from 11 malls in 2011. During the program, which often is held before the regular shopping hours to limit crowds, the lights are turned down and the music is left off. 

Mall operators General Growth Properties (GCP) and The Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT) also are hosting “Caring Santa” activities.

“Because the traditional experience is loud and crowded, many kids with special needs and their families were simply doing without this beloved family tradition of meeting Santa and having a photo,” said Lindsay Dieckman, who oversees the Santa photo operations for Simon Properties.

After reading about quiet hours held at Toys ‘R’ US stores in the U.K., where lights are dimmed and holiday music is turned off, the retailer decided to launch the program at handful of U.S. stores after being approached by activists such as Patti Erickson, president of the Greater Philadelphia Autism Society. 

The retailer’s location in the Pennsylvania’s King of Prussia Mall set up areas with specially designed “sensory” toys that would calm excited children. About 50 people showed up for the event that was held on Dec. 3.  

“They were a little bit hesitant given the fact that we would have to do it when the store was opened, but it made it more of a unique sensory-friendly shopping experience,” Erickson said.

Toys ‘R’ US held similar programs at stores in Lawrenceville, New Jersey; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Charlestown, West Virginia, according to Candace Disler, a spokeswoman for the Wayne, New Jersey-based company.

“Others are still pending for the coming months as we test out these opportunities on a local scale to roll them out more broadly,” she said.

A Target (TGT) store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, offered “quiet hours” to accommodate customers with autism earlier this month in conjunction with local partners. However, Angie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota-based chain, stressed it has no plans to roll out the program companywide, although Target is always interested in making its customers feel welcome.

“The store leader of our Lancaster East store worked with his team and local community partners to create a welcoming shopping event for his guests on the autism spectrum, and we applaud his efforts,” Thompson said in an email.

In the end, though, doing a kindness for children with special needs may pay off with their parents.

“Our community is loyal,” said Lindsay Naeder, director of the Autism Response Team at Autism Speaks. “A company that takes the time to invest in becoming autism-friendly and autism-accepting will get a big following.”

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.