Outside the chaos of a mall, Santa visits children with autism

In the calm of a quiet room, autistic children get the chance to meet a Santa prepared to meet them

Isaiah Haro adores Santa Claus. But taking him to see Santa was something his mother dreaded.

Isaiah is autistic and nonverbal. At age 14, his mental development is that of a toddler, said his mother, Yolanda Haro.

While waiting for Santa, Isaiah gets fidgety and yells, making incomprehensible noises and sometimes drooling. There are stares from people who pull their own children away from him, baffled at a teenager behaving that way.

"You always have to explain your child," Yolanda Haro said, her eyes misty. "And Santa doesn't know how to respond to a child who doesn't talk back."

This week, a special Sensitive Santa came to the San Fernando Valley for children like Isaiah.

At We Rock the Spectrum Kid's Gym in Northridge — a sensory-based gym that provides therapy for children with special needs — Saint Nick sat in an ornate wooden chair in a quiet white room with no lines to see him.

The door was open to the gym where kids played so they could see him at their own pace.

Patrick Dinsmore, of North Hills, had never played Santa before, but he agreed to don the red suit and white beard because he too has an autistic teenage son. As he prepared to take Santa's seat, Dinsmore said he wouldn't ask questions because some kids couldn't respond, and he would learn their names before they came in so he could address them individually.

Shoshana Nelson was the first to rush inside. The autistic 14-year-old, her long curly hair pulled in a ponytail, plopped onto Santa's lap, grabbed his arms and wrapped them around her in a hug.

"Hi, Santa," she said softly before rummaging through his red velvet gift bag and running to the gym to play.

A toddler walked to Santa on his tiptoes — a tell-tale sign he was on the autism spectrum, whispered Dinsmore's wife, Melinda, a special education teacher.

All of the parents spoke of their wariness of mall Santas. Their stories were the same: the meltdowns and tears; the stares; the awkwardness from untrained Santas.

This month, an actor portraying Santa at The Shops at Mission Viejo was fired after turning away a 7-year-old autistic girl and her service dog. In a statement, her family said they should have been "celebrating … the accomplishment of a child who waited over 30 minutes … to see Santa" and instead had to comfort her.

"We know that children waiting in line to see Santa, especially kids with autism, often have difficulty with waiting patiently, following directions and getting overstimulated by all the people in the mall and the lights and noises," said Dr. Agnesa Papazyan, owner of We Rock the Spectrum in Northridge. "It's a sensory overload."

The Sensitive Santa was patient and understanding — exactly what Yolanda Haro had hoped for. When Isaiah came in, Santa greeted him by name.

"Merry Christmas, Isaiah!" he said, clapping his hands softly.

Isaiah stood in the doorway, clutching a red rubber ball. His father, Jesus Haro, held his shoulders and guided him slowly toward Santa Claus.

Isaiah's parents helped him into a small chair beside Santa, and he held the ball up to Santa's hat, matching the colors and touching Santa's face. They shared a few quiet moments together, and his mother smiled.

Christina Beltran tried to bring her autistic 12-year-old son, Alex, into the room twice but he yelped and pulled away. The third time, he stood in the doorway and waved at Santa, his eyes lighting up. His parents brought him closer, and he screamed and clutched his father's arm — but he had waved, and that was big.

"He gave him a 'hi,'" Christina Beltran, of Lake Balboa, said. "That's good."

A few minutes later, when no one else was in the room, Alex came back and shook Santa's hand. When he turned to his parents, he wore a big grin and clapped his hands. Santa clapped, too.

Behind the white beard, Dinsmore was emotional.

"That's a big step for him," he said after Alex left the room. "When you get into the world of these families, when you meet people like these parents, you know the world isn't all bad. It restores your faith in humanity."

hailey.branson@latimes.com
Twitter: @haileybranson

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