Foxborough — Lisa Rader had never been able to take a traditional Santa photo with her two sons, Luke, 4, and Marc, who is 21 and autistic. To Marc, the traditional mall setting of bright lights, jingling bells, crying children, and long lines can be frightening.
On Saturday morning, the Raders were among 30 families meeting with “Sensitive Santa” at Bass Pro Shops in Foxborough, which had partnered with the May Institute to hold a calmer, toned-down Santa photo shoot designed for autistic children.
This is their fourth year hosting Sensitive Santa, and 60 families are registered. The second 30 families will meet Sensitive Santa next weekend.
The Raders were the last family on Saturday to meet with Thom Martin, who was dressed as Santa.
Martin communicated slowly and softly with families.
“You want them to engage you and be very comfortable with you,” Martin said during a break. “I always tell children – if you want to sit on my lap, that’s fine. If you want to stand, that’s fine, too.”
Martin gently beckoned Marc and Luke over. He offered Marc a seat on his wooden rocking chair with a pine green seat cushion, and stood beside him. The brothers were both wearing camouflage green outfits, contrasting Martin’s white and red Santa suit.
Marc and Luke smiled and huddled with Santa, creating the brothers’ first Christmas photo, according to Rader, who joined them for one family shot.
“Usually the lines are too long, and it’s too hot and noisy,” Rader said. “We just don’t do it.”
“You did very, very well,” Martin reassured Marc, who beamed at Santa and gave him a high-five.
Ali Schroeder, a behavior analyst from the May Institute, said autistic children often grow up secluded, unable to participate in social interactions, and in holiday traditions that others take for granted.
“When you have autism, it’s hard,” Schroeder said. Sensory stimulation like noise and light can quickly become scary and overwhelming for autistic children.
“We want to minimize the sensory overload for some of the kids,” said Mary Tiernan, a vice president of philanthropy for the May Institute, which provides a range of services to people with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities.
“We want them to experience what their peers are experiencing,” Tiernan said.
Unlike a traditional visit to Santa, this one had no singing carolers or booming Christmas music. The photographers didn’t use noisy bells to get children to look at the camera, but rather held up stuffed animals and waved them near the lens.
The event was held early in the morning, before the Bass Pro Shops opened for the day, when the store was quiet and empty.
The event was broken into 15-minute time slots, with up to five families signed up for each slot. When it was their turn, families were led downstairs into a roped-off waiting area. In that area, a few tables were set up for the children — as well as Marc and a few teens — to do arts and crafts. Across from the tables sat Santa in his chair, ready to greet the kids whenever they were ready.
“They need to warm up. They need their time,” said Jessica Avery, who had come from Sandwich with her sons, Greyson, 2, and Cameron 4, both of whom have autism.
Andrea Spector, of Norwood, brought her children, Susannah, 3, and Aaron, 7, who has autism and “high impulsivity levels.”
“My motto is any picture is a good picture,” Spector said while Aaron ran in circles nearby with a phone to his ear, listening to sounds from an animated video, “Creative Galaxy,” that was playing.
“This is a safe, accepting, loving place,” Spector said. “We very seldom get pictures because he doesn’t want to focus, and waiting is too much for him.”
Kristin Doucette, of Milford, brought her 3-year-old son, Chase. Last year was their first experience with Sensitive Santa.
“It was a huge deal,” Doucette said. “At first, he was scared out of his mind. But we did arts and crafts first and he worked his way up to Santa. I was praying they would hold it again this year.”
When it was Chase’s turn, he shyly walked up to Santa and handed him a bracelet with two jingle bells on it. Santa lifted him up onto his lap.
“Look right here at the doggy,” called out Rachael Marcotte, the visual coordinator, holding a stuffed animal. She snapped the photo.
“Good job, Bud, you did awesome,” Doucette said to her son as they walked off.Alana Levene can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @alanalevene.