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Special Mall Hours for Families with Autistic Child: Is This Progress?

Frustration_ReliefBy Kim Stagliano

Before you jump down my throat - we have participated in sensory movies and other autism friendly events. I appreciate them. But - at what point will the larger world say, "Hey! How come this ONE population of disability is unable to participate in the general day to day world like everyone else?"  Why not "Down Syndrome Day at Sesame Place" or "Cerebral Palsy night at the Bridgeport Bluefish ball park?"  There's no "Jerry's Kids movie showing" at the local cinema.   

I'd like the media and average Joe and Jane  to realize that autism needs action, beyond it's own "Blue Friday shopping event." Autism is a dire financial, emotional, physical, medical and mental drain on families from coast to coast. We get precious little medical treatment, we're told that research into genetics might someday lead from mouse models to oh, say a primate! And then in 100 years, something for humans. We're asked to be patient as millions of dollars in research turn over the Elmo rock, the old sperm rock, the clever parents rock in a flim flam game that helps no one but those whose names are on the grant applications.  We watch our children grow into handsome and beautiful adults who can not function independently in society while awareness campaigns sugar coat reality into a thin gruel the nation is willing to digest.

I don't want more ambulances to triage the kids who are getting hit by the autism bus - I want a safe road with sidewalks so that no one gets hit at all.

I know that families need TLC and a mall event to visit Santa without the dirty looks and sneers from those who know nothing of our world.  If there was a Sensitive Santa night in our Westfield Mall I'd take the kids with pleasure and be grateful for the opportunity. But in the bigger picture, we need to keep shouting "FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!" so that another generation of kids isn't so badly affected by autism that the world is unaccessible and hostile to them.

Comment on the article below at TulsaWorld.

Christine McClary’s kids are terrified of the mall.

Jacob, who’s 8, and Emily, 7, don’t do well with all the sights and sounds of a shopping center, especially this bustling time of year.

“I can’t take them, ever,” McClary said. “It’s just because everything is over-stimulating.”

Both Jacob and Emily have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - Jacob in 2005, Emily in 2006. Neither sibling can talk. Certain textures and colors upset them.

So sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall has never been an option - or, at least, it won’t be until this weekend, when Emily and Jacob will go to Tulsa Promenade for the shopping center’s second annual “Sensitive Santa” event from 8 to 11 a.m. Sunday.

Families who are affected by ASD are invited to the event, which caters to autistic children, allowing each an opportunity to enjoy a moment with Santa, as well as other kids, all in a sensory-friendly atmosphere - low lights, low music, no shoppers and a staff instructed to avoid loud, distracting movements.


“It just sounds right,” McClary said. “I think they’ll be able to handle it sensory-wise so they’re not feeling overwhelmed.”

ASD affects an estimated 1 in 150 children, according to information from the Autism Center of Tulsa. No two children with ASD have the exact same symptoms, and the number of symptoms and how severe they are can vary greatly.

When Jill Hobbs of Broken Arrow tried to take her oldest son, Gabe, to see a department-store Santa once, “it did not go well, to say it mildly,” she said.

So last year, when she heard about “Sensitive Santa,” she was excited.

“Oh my gosh, what a godsend,” she said. “That is fantastic. It made all the difference in the world.”

The program started in 2008 at the Dayton Mall in Dayton, Ohio. The mall works with various charities annually, but it pays particular attention to a different one each year, explained mall spokesman Dave Casper during a recent phone interview.

In 2008, they were working with the Autism Society of Dayton, whose president brought up to mall management how difficult it is for kids with ASD to visit with Santa. All the lights, music and crowds are too much to take.

That holiday season, they offered “Sensitive Santa” before mall hours, and 20 to 30 kids showed up, Casper recalled. It went so well, it not only became a holiday tradition for them, it’s offered at other malls owned by Glimcher. Tulsa Promenade is among the company’s 20-plus properties, which are scattered from coast to coast.

It was a learning experience for Casper, he said, who has seen the same families each year.

“It’s made a difference in these kids’ lives,” he said. “There’s no program that garners more response from parents than this. Nothing we’ve ever done has gotten the thank-you emails.”

At Tulsa Promenade, the shopping center will offer each family a free 4x6 photo keepsake through Worldwide Photography to commemorate the holiday activity.

Last year, Gabe, who was 5, high-fived Santa. “That was success in our book,” his mom said.

When they weren’t waiting in line, the kids could run around in the mall’s play area, Hobbs said.

“When you have a child, your special kid, all the other parents kind of help out, watch out for the other kids,” she said. “It’s kind of like your own little family.”

This Christmas, he’s going to ask Santa for roller skates, a fishing pole and a Nintendo DS.

“He’s ready,” Hobbs said. “He’s been practicing.”

For more about “Sensitive Santa,” call Tulsa Promenade, 918-627-2396.

All I Can Handle SmallKim Stagliano is Managing Editor of Age of Autism and author of All I Can Handle I'm No Mother Teresa A Life Raising Three Daughters with Autism now available in paperback with bonus content including recipes, a study/book club guide and additional chapter.

 

 

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AL: Sometimes it's easy to forget that I am not the only one who sees the segregation in the good intentions. I get so tired of being the Mom With The Pointy Black Hat any time I dare to approach my inclusion soap box. Thank you, thank you, and thank you. I am not alone. -makeautismwork@gmail.com

There is a delicate balance between sensory-friendly events and segregation. Special events are wonderful for those who want to take advantage of them and use them to help their child become more accomstomed to going out in the busy over stimulating world.

I much prefer the businesses that accommodate us during normal business hours, as a matter of course, rather than a special event.

We went to see an animated movie when my son was about 3 years old. It was his first time in a theater. We sat in the back row, to stay out of the fray. My son couldn't handle it. He kept getting more and more upset until finally, 25 minutes into the movie, we had to leave. On our way out, the theater manager stopped us and asked what was wrong. I think he knew. My son was letting out that blood-curdling "autism scream" as he was approaching us.

We quickly explained the situation to the manager, and turned to leave. He said "I am so sorry, please come with me." He gave us a full refund, without us asking, or even hinting at it.

THAT, to me, is accommodating special needs kids. Having these silly special hours for them is nothing more than segregation. I'm not saying these folks don't MEAN WELL, but I'd much rather patronize a business that is always looking out for us, and not just during special events.

For those interested in the Eastern PA area, this was the theater. I encourage you to go spend your money there as they more than deserve your business. http://www.moviefone.com/theater/regal-cinemas-marketplace-24/3532/showtimes

Prevention is always best. Hands down. We're pulling kids out of the river, who are drowning, rather than go upstream to find out why they're falling in. But, for those currently suffering with autism, there are few accommodations in society, where there are accommodations for many other disabilities, such as elevators, wheelchair ramps/bathrooms, audible traffic signals, etc., there are few accommodations for people with autism. They would not need special events, if they would accommodate all special needs. Scent-friendly buildings, non-flickering lighting, earpieces to replace loudspeakers, etc., would go a long way to accommodating more people, at all times.

Thank you Kim for asking the question.

'Sensitive Santa' at Promenade caters to autism-spectrum children

http://www.tulsaworld.com/scene/article.aspx?subjectid=277&articleid=20111201_43_D1_CUTLIN646412

Back in July, I wrote the story, Libraries and Autism: Connected http://www.ageofautism.com/2011/07/libraries-and-autism-connected.html for Age of Autism. It was about libraries training employees to deal with autistic children. This was being done matter-of-factly. It's as if autism is now an accepted part of childhood.

My posted comment on the Tulsa story:

I'm sure parents appreciate special hours for children with autism . One in every 110 children now have an autism diagnosis. And among boys alone, we see a rate of almost 2 percent. These are frightening statistics.

We're seeing stories about teacher training, police and emergency workers being educated about autism, and churches providing services for children with autism, and the list goes on. While it's of course encouraging to see accommodations being made to help autistic children enjoy a library visit, this is being done matter-of-factly. It's as if autism is now an accepted part of childhood.

Autism was unknown 25 years ago. Today it's so common that everyone knows someone with an affected child and no official can tell us why it's happening. Scarier still are the stories about children who were born healthy and were developing normally and who suddenly regressed into autism. Doctors scratch their heads over this regression. Are we becoming a society that's given up on finding the cause of autism? Will we just adjust to having one percent of children with autism? What if the rate continues to soar? Eventually will we become a country that doesn't remember a world without autism and doesn't care?

Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

I loved this. Kim, you hit the nail on the head. You put your insights into words so well. I always enjoy reading your columns.

I agree with you Kim. It is far better to solve the problem than put a band-aid on it. I appreciate people who want to make life easy for a person who is having a difficult time. My son is one of these people who benefits from kind acts. The focus should be on the solution, and I believe all who follow Age of Autism know what that is.

Why the negativity about this? It allows kids who are in the process of recovering to enjoy ordinary childhood delights and experiences without the painful, over-stimulating usual mall environment. Recovery, as we all very well know, can take years, very often leaving kids to outgrow opportunities such as sitting on Santa's lap or going on an Easter egg hunt, etc. I give these malls a lot of credit for accommodating a group of kids and their families who, more often than not, are either excluded from or simply unable to participate in community holiday activities. It's not like our kids don't know that they miss out on a lot of the fun stuff the other kids are doing. Our kids know. They KNOW. Just because they can't tell us with their words, doesn't mean they don't know. So, "Bravo!" to those in the community who recognize this and have made an effort to include our kids. If Sensitive Santa comes to our mall, we'll be in line with all the other grateful parents.

wow! that was great!
I believe special children need special treatment and for their family too. nice.. nice..

Sharper Image, The Discovery Store and the Apple Store have added special hours for clever parents.

Oh come on now Kim, this is a great idea! Special mall hours for our kids, and preferred seating at the back of the bus for the ride home.

Maybe we can create special restaurants, just for our kids too? We can also figure out a way to avoid those establishments that are NOT autism friendly. Hmmm, let me think. I know! We can hang a sign out front that says "NT's Only".

My memory is failing. I could swear I've seen something like this before, somewhere. Maybe I read it in an old book?

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