For eight-year-old Liam, going to a shopping centre — especially at Christmas time — can be an overwhelming experience.
“Christmas crowds are just a massive overload; the bright lights, loud noises, high-pitched sounds all become a very distressing and upsetting situation,” Liam’s mother Amy Palmer explained.
The Canberra boy has autism and sensory processing disorder.
For years he and his mother had wanted to have a photo with Santa Claus at a shopping centre, but each year they tried Liam became overwhelmed and distressed.
“The last time I got a photo of Liam with Santa he was one month old,” Ms Palmer said.
So when she discovered Westfield shopping centres had implemented Sensitive Santa, she decided to give it a go.
The photo sessions run outside of the centre’s general opening hours and the centre’s music is turned off and lighting reduced.
“There was no crowd, no noises, and it was a peaceful, relaxing 15 minutes,” Ms Palmer said of her family’s photo session with Sensitive Santa.
“Liam actually sat next to Santa and he held his sister while they were taking the photos and I was so surprised.
“I got a photo of all three of my kids with Santa and I just walked out of there crying because I finally had a Christmas photo to be proud of.”
And for Liam, he was excited to be able to meet Santa.
“What meant the most to me was that Liam, for the first time, was able to tell Santa what he wanted for Christmas, and that was just the best feeling in the world for me,” Ms Palmer said.
Becoming Sensitive Santa and enjoying it
George Clark has been playing Santa Claus for eight years, and has been a Sensitive Santa at two Canberra shopping centres for the past three.
“I started it originally just to get some extra money but then found I really enjoyed talking to the children and hearing what they wanted for Christmas so I just keep coming back each year,” he said.
Mr Clark enjoys being Santa so much that he now keeps his hair long and grows a beard to really get into character.
“When you put that Santa outfit on you sort of become Santa, and if you go out there to have fun with the kids like I do, then you’ll thoroughly enjoy it — I’d recommend it to anyone.”
Mr Clark said the key to being a successful Santa was being truthful.
“When they ask you a question and you’re answering back it’s got to be natural otherwise they pick up on it,” he said.
“The favourite one is, ‘Are you the real Santa?’ The worst thing you could say is yes because they know very well that you’re not.
“But if you’re honest and say, ‘Santa’s very busy this time of year and he asks special people to come in and help him do the work’, they accept that.”
And what is it that the kids are asking for this Christmas?
“Yo-yos and rainbow unicorns — it’s interesting to see how it changes each year,” Mr Clark said.
Calm Room offers respite to overwhelmed shoppers
Ms Palmer and her family can also do some Christmas shopping this year in relative peace after she asked Woden Shopping Centre to install a Calm Room.
“About 12 months ago I’d attempted a shopping experience and I got some very negative comments and feedback from shoppers in the shopping centre and it was just a horrible situation,” she said.
“I came home and cried and I said to my husband, ‘we need a calm space in shopping centres like the one we have here at home for Liam’.”
The Calm Room opened at Woden last month, offering a relaxing, private space for children and adults when the experience becomes overwhelming.
And for the first time in years, Ms Palmer has been able to go to the centre with her children again.
“If we’re halfway through doing grocery shopping and there’s a meltdown, instead of pushing the trolley away and going, ‘I can’t do this’, we can leave the trolley and go into the Calm Room,” she said.
“We can be in there for as long as we need to until the child is relaxed, self-regulated and ready to go again, and then we can go and finish what we were doing.”