The picture with Santa had never happened for Mason Pilon, 4. Every year, Mary Beth and Glenn Pilon had tried to get the traditional photo of their son, who has autism, but he had always left agitated and in tears.
But this season’s debut of Sensitive Santa at Bass Pro Shops made the process a little easier. The May Institute, a nonprofit that provides support for people with developmental and behavioral challenges, brings children with sensory disorders into the Foxborough store with a specially trained Santa and elves.
“My heart did a cartwheel,” said Mary Beth, of Seekonk. “My husband and I are elated.”
Sensitive Santa is the latest twist for an industry of red-suited men that has evolved in recent years to include Signing Santas to serve the deaf community and pet-friendly Santas who are trained to keep Fido calm enough to be photographed in his holiday finest.
Locally, select Simon Malls are hosting pet photo nights with Santa on Sunday evenings through Dec. 13 (go to www.simon.com for mall-specific event hours). Sensitive Santa, a free event held on early weekend mornings before Bass Pro Shops opens to the public, is already completely booked.
“We’re thinking of this as a pilot,” said Mary Tiernan, senior vice president of the May Institute, whose headquarters are in Randolph.
Tiernan said Sensitive Santa starts preparing children well before they set foot in the store with a storyboard that features step-by-step photographs of what to expect. Inside, modified lights help prevent overstimulation, and May Institute teachers, dressed as elves, work to make the process positive. There is also a sensory-friendly arts and crafts project that children can do while they are waiting their turn.
“We want Mason to have these experiences,” said Mary Beth Pilon. “He loves the tree, the presents, looking at all the ornaments. He loves the music and the fireplace. We want him to have a picture with Santa. Finally someone gets it.”
Jill Radsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.