HARTFORD, Conn. -- Visiting the mall to share Christmas wishes with Santa has never been part of Ben Borre's childhood, a sad but necessary concession to the autism that would make the noise, lights and crowds an unbearable torment for the 10-year-old.
Now, though, a growing number of "sensitive" Santas in shopping centers, at community parties and elsewhere are giving Ben and others a chance to meet the big guy in autism-friendly settings – and providing families a chance to capture elusive Christmas photos and memories that families of typical children may take for granted.
Ohio-based Glimcher Realty Trust recently started offering sensitive Santa sessions in its two dozen malls nationwide, and several service organizations and autism family groups have recruited low-key Kris Kringles who adjust their demeanor to the special needs of their young guests.
"Every parent dreads the noise and chaos of the mall Santa scene, but this isn't even dreading. It's just literally un-doable for us," said Darlene Borre of West Hartford, Ben's mother.
Ben, a nonverbal fourth-grader, is among the up to 1.5 million Americans living with autism spectrum disorders that can include delays or disabilities in communication, behavior and socialization. They can range from mild difficulties to significant impairments that make it difficult for those children to interact with others.
Many children with autism are especially sensitive to loud noises, jangling music, crowds and unpredictable situations, and some parents say the idea that they could wait patiently in a long line to see Santa is laughable at best.
The Borres tried without success a few times over the years to grab quick snapshots if Ben randomly walked close enough to any Santa they encountered, but with mixed results.
Now, he visits an autism-friendly Santa each December at an informal yearly event that Borre and other autism families hold at a local playground. The sensitive Santa happens to be Ben's grandfather, Ray Lepak, who was compelled to become an autism-friendly Santa for local families after seeing what his daughter's family was experiencing.
"Just because a family has a child with special needs doesn't mean they don't want all the same memories that everyone else does," Borre said. "We all want those same holiday joyful moments; it just has to be approached differently."
Ben's sister, 4-year-old Lila, who does not have autism, and is getting wise to the fact that Santa and Grandpa bear a suspicious resemblance. But she's not letting on to Ben, and visiting the autism-friendly Santa is giving the Borres a chance to share a family experience they otherwise might be denied.
Lepak, 69, of Manchester recently donned his Santa suit – plus a brand-new beard and snow-white wig – and met with several Hartford-area children and their parents at their now-annual playground gathering. He's learned over the years how to pep it up for siblings who don't have autism, and how to tone it down for children who seem overwhelmed.
He starts with a few mellow "Ho, Ho, Ho" greetings, watches for those who are intrigued, and smiles or beckons to them to come closer. Many steer clear but watch him, either curiously or warily, while others remain disinterested.
"You'll see them watch Santa out of the corner of their eye, then little by little they'll come closer, then walk away as if you're not there, and come back in a bit," Lepak said. "It's really about following their lead and communicating on their terms."
Some will give him a high five; the braver ones might sit on his lap. At the recent gathering, one child had no interest at all in Santa until he realized that the big guy in the bright red suit was willing to push him on a swing – and those fleeting moments were enough for the boy's family to snap pictures.
A growing number of malls also are setting aside special times for sensitive Santa visits when the shopping centers would otherwise be closed, including the 23 shopping malls of Glimcher Realty Trust, based in Columbus, Ohio.
A recent autism-friendly Santa visit at its Northtown Mall in Blaine, Minn., just outside of Minneapolis, drew 55 children despite poor weather, and last year drew more than 100.
Linda Sell, Northtown's marketing director, said the two-hour window on a recent Sunday morning was devoid of lines and the bustle of a regular Santa visit. Instead, children could play and color nearby or walk in a safe, contained area until their number was called.
Sell said they also turned off the Christmas music, dimmed the lights, sent maintenance workers and other potential distractions away, and asked parents to fill out a form in advance to give Santa the heads up on the boys' and girls' wish lists.
"Some kids will sit next to Santa. Some will want to stand a little farther away and look at him, or sit in the chair next to him, or have mom or dad next to him," Sell said.
For a child on the autism spectrum, sometimes the smallest item or gesture can spark a connection – such as the Northtown Mall Santa's gold watch and the tiny Christmas train that rotates inside of it, for instance, or Ray Lepak's time as a swing-pushing Santa at the Connecticut park.
For many families, those small moments captured in pictures and memories are a holiday gift of their own: a chance to go beyond the constraints of autism and experience a Christmas tradition with their children that might not otherwise be possible.
"It's so hard on some of these families trying to take some of the kids out," Lepak said. "What a feeling that is, when I'm inside the Santa suit and I see those little innocent faces. They love it and it warms my heart."