Sensory Santa Makes Christmas a Sensational Experience for Young Kiwis

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‘Tis the season to be jolly as Santa parks his sleigh at many shopping centres around New Zealand this Christmas. However, Santa’s arrival at The Palms Shopping Centre in Christchurch is set to make the treasured experience of meeting Santa, a much more pleasant experience for New Zealand children with sensory disorders.

The Palms Shopping Centre will be the first shopping centre in New Zealand to offer a safe Sensory Santa experience for families and children with sensory disorders and special needs. The first session will be held on Saturday 5 December from 7.30am to 9.30am and due to high demand, The Palms has extended the sessions to include Sunday 6 December from 8am to 10am and again the following weekend. Families can book private appointments so children with sensory disorders are able to visit Santa without the crowds, jostling and loud noises that can be overwhelming for some children.

The brainchild of the Sensory Santa experience, Chanelle Avison, originally started Sensory Movie Day in Australia and is starting the trend with Sensory Santa after having twins who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Chanelle was recently awarded The Longman award for being an outstanding volunteer and disability support person.

Of what sparked the inspiration for the Sensory Santa initiative, Chanelle says, “I started thinking about Santa photos and how they’re not so easy to get for my twins. The only photo I had of the twins with Santa was taken when they were nine months old, but as they have grown older and become more aware of their surroundings, we have not been able to continue this annual tradition. I wondered how many other families had gaps in their photo albums. All of the Christmas parades and public Santa photo opportunities are events with which sensory children can’t cope.

“For many children with autism and sensory processing disorders, even background music can be too much. At one time, I couldn’t leave my house for five years due to the lack of suitable places I could take my children.”

The Palms Shopping Centre, as the hub of the community, was inspired by Chanelle’s story and saw the Sensory Santa as an opportunity to ensure all families in the community were able to enjoy meeting Santa. Sensory Santa gives children with sensory processing disorders access to the same experience of Christmas joy as other children, but is structured to avoid overpowering their senses by providing a safe, non-judgemental environment that meets their needs.

Sensory Santa at The Palms will eliminate factors that sensory children can’t cope with, such as crowds, loud noises, close proximity to people, music and bright lights. The Palms Shopping Centre marketing manager Laura Jones says, “It’s a privilege for The Palms to be the first centre to host the Sensory Santa experience for local families, and we hope it will be a regular seasonal event. This is just the beginning for New Zealand, and we hope other centres across the country are able to replicate this wonderful and inclusive initiative – there is increasing demand for these sensory experiences overseas, so it’s great to be able to introduce it to New Zealand families.”

Chanelle believes there is a need for Sensory Santa throughout New Zealand. “According to Autism New Zealand, ASD touches the lives of over 40,000 people and their families in New Zealand, making it four times more common than cerebral palsy and 17 times more common than Down syndrome.

“I have met so many New Zealand families with special needs that would greatly benefit from events inclusive of their children, and I couldn’t be happier that a progressive shopping centre such as The Palms is helping us launch this initiative in New Zealand. We don’t want any children missing out and it reassures families that The Palms community is there for them – they are not alone.

“Once you remove sensory barriers for these children, you wouldn’t know they had any to begin with. From my experience launching Sensory Santa in Australia, it’s been great to see the progress children make over the years. Some children who originally didn’t want to have their photo taken are now booting Santa out his throne to have their photo taken on his chair, and some others who were non-verbal are now talking after previous experiences visiting Sensory Santa.”

Families that book an appointment for a Sensory Santa session will be able to purchase their Santa photos for the lower rate of $5 (normally $17), subsidised by The Palms.