It has been a decade since Chuck and Gloria Tilley have been able to get a portrait of their twin sons with Santa.
Justin, 17, has autism. His brother, Kyle, has Down syndrome.
Going to the mall is simply too much. So is waiting in line under bright lights and loud Christmas music. The Lake- view family has even been asked to leave a movie theater because their son was tapping his leg.
“We don’t go to the mall,” Chuck Tilley said. “We just don’t go.”
The Tilleys and dozens of other parents of special-needs children found a quiet and peaceful place at the Eastern Hills Mall on Sunday to enjoy an annual Christmas ritual that many families take for granted: a visit with Santa and a portrait to take home for a keepsake.
The mall dimmed its lights and turned off the music for a few hours early Sunday. Families were given appointments so they didn’t have to wait in line, and Santa and Mrs. Claus spoke in calm, soft tones. It was all part of a “Patient Santa” event designed to give autistic children and other special-needs kids a quiet atmosphere to enjoy time with Santa.
“Our kids are left out of a lot of things because they don’t have the social skills and patience,” said Kim Mattioli, a Hamburg mother whose son, Joshua, 7, was diagnosed with autism four years ago.
Like other parents of children with autism, Mattioli said it can be difficult to bring her son to places where people aren’t prepared for what could go wrong.
“I don’t want him to miss out on the joy of being a little boy because of his diagnosis,” she said.
Parents who took part in the Santa visit on Sunday said the mall is one of a small but growing number of places that offer special events tailored to children with autism spectrum disorders. AMC Maple Ridge theaters offers one movie showing a month that is “sensory friendly” with softer sound and a theater that is not totally darkened. AMF Thruway Lanes in Cheektowaga runs a bowling league for children with autism.
The Patient Santa concept was brought to the Eastern Hills Mall by Joe and Kelly Van Slycke, whose toddler son has autism. They saw a news report on a similar event outside the region and wanted to bring it to Western New York.
To avoid a line, the organizers created a play area with a therapy dog and activities where the children could wait before their appointments with Santa.
“There’s a lot of forethought into everything that you do with these kids, whether it’s going to the grocery store or going to church or going to the Eastern Hills Mall to visit Santa,” said Vienna Haak, a Grand Island mother whose 12-year-old son, Austin, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. “You have to anticipate what you can encounter so that you can try to make the experience as pleasant for the kids as possible, because the slightest thing could set them off.”
For Austin, who loves geography, the morning started with a look at a map to see the route to the mall. His visit with Santa wrapped up with a big kiss on the cheek for Mrs. Claus.
The kiss, his mother said, was a sure sign of success.
“He’ll just touch the side of his face to your face,” Haak said. “And that’s his way of saying, ‘Man, you are super cool, and I wish I could take you home.’ ”