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Quiet Santa event tailors visits with Christmas icon for those with autism

Austin Thorpe, eight, is one of many children with autism who take part in Quiet Santa, an event organized by the Annapolis Valley Chapter of Autism Nova Scotia. His mother, Jackie Thorpe, says seeing her son visit with Santa was amazing. “It was a ‘follow Austin’ kind of deal, and Santa was amazing,” she says.
Austin Thorpe, eight, is one of many children with autism who take part in Quiet Santa, an event organized by the Annapolis Valley Chapter of Autism Nova Scotia. His mother, Jackie Thorpe, says seeing her son visit with Santa was amazing. “It was a ‘follow Austin’ kind of deal, and Santa was amazing,” she says. - Sara Ericsson

GREENWOOD – Jackie Thorpe remembers the first time her son Austin saw Santa at the Greenwood Mall.

Austin is now eight years old and is autistic. He is non-verbal and doesn’t enjoy big crowds or loud noises. But when he saw Santa, all was quiet, and all was calm.

Austin walked up to the green and red platform and began checking out the decorations, the tree, the fireplace and Santa himself. He sat on the ground instead of on Santa’s knee, and Santa got down too – something Thorpe says was "quite amazing to see."

“There was no pressure for him to sit in the chair. It was a ‘follow Austin’ kind of deal, and Santa was amazing,” she says.

The event was launched in 2015 by the Annapolis Valley Chapter of Autism Nova Scotia after years of hearing from parents whose children were not able to see Santa during the busy Christmas shopping season.

Sandy Wing, the chapter’s navigator, says the event is held at both Greenwood Mall and County Fair Mall in New Minas before the mall opens its stores, turns on its music and is illuminated with fluorescent lights.

She says this lack of sensory stimuli is exactly what works for those with an autism diagnosis, who are able to visit on their own terms within their own allotted time with Santa.

“We see children and teens taking part in it, because it’s the first time they’ve been able to see Santa,” she says.

Thorpe says she and Austin have been back each year since the event started. While she used to take her daughters during regular hours to see Santa, Austin was never able to go, even if the line were short.

She says she always gets “all emotions at once” when she sees her son enjoying his time with Santa.

“For him to be able to finally have the experience that his sisters did when they were younger, that’s just amazing,” says Thorpe.

The event is free of charge and welcomes all ages, as well as siblings. Since 2015, Wing has seen several kids return each year and move around the space with Santa, who follows their lead and gets on their level.

“We see kids get braver – some may try sitting in the chair, perhaps – and Santa is so good with them. It’s emotional for the parents, and for us too,” she says.

If interested in a Quiet Santa visit, please contact Sandy at annapolisvalley@autismns.ca with your child/teen/adult's name and age, your preferred time and your contact information.

Fifteen-minute time slots at County Fair Mall on Sunday, Nov. 25 run from 9:15 a.m. to noon, and at the Greenwood Mall on Sunday, Dec. 9 from 9:45 a.m. to noon.

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