‘Sensitive Santa’ wins smiles in Orange

ORANGE >> After her 8-year-old son, Rui, visited with Santa Claus, Marla Carvalho had the kind of smile a mother gets watching a milestone like her child’s first step.

For Rui, who has autism and sensory issues, visiting with Santa on Sunday was indeed a milestone of sorts.

“I can’t get this at a mall,” a beaming Carvalho said. “It’s fantastic.”

Carvalho was referring to a “Sensitive Santa” experience at ASD Fitness for children and youths on the autism spectrum.

Youths ages 5-21 signed up to meet Santa in a quiet space, one-to-one so there were no stressful, unexpected noises.

For kids and young adults like Rui who have sensory issues that often accompany autism and other special needs, the sensitive approach is the difference in being able to participate in the childhood tradition of visiting Santa.

Santa, who looked a lot like Michael Storz, president of the award-winning program for teens and adults with special needs Chapel Haven, kept the ho-ho-hos soft and calm, gave lots of positive reinforcement and offered a seat next to him for those who didn’t want to sit on his knee.

This Santa was so intuitive that Amelia “Mi-Mi” Hamilton, 5, only had to look at him a certain way without talking and Santa said, “You’re welcome.”

He had given her a gift minutes before.

Since many of the children Santa saw are nonverbal, he did a lot of the talking - in a gentle tone - telling them, “Thank you so much for being such a good” boy or girl and “Santa has a present for you.”

Michael Higgins, 12, of West Haven, is nonverbal, but was all smiles while visiting Santa. His father, James Higgins, said it was much “less stressful” than a store Santa visit because there wasn’t noise or yelling in the area.

“We love it,” Higgins said of the event. “He won’t go to a regular Santa.”

Aiden Krynski, 6, of Monroe, came with a list he wrote on red construction paper, including a rocket ship, Legos and a dump truck.

“I’m so proud of you,” Santa told Aiden.

Aiden’s mother, Jamie Krynski, said this Santa was “not loud or obnoxious” like many others, and father Robert Krynski added, “He is super-friendly.”

The Krynskis said Aiden has been going to ASD fitness for three years and has made fabulous gains in speed, strength and hand-to-eye coordination.

The center specializes in children with autism and other special needs.

“This place is fantastic,” Robert Krynski said.

This Santa, patient and full of high-fives, told everyone they were good.

This is the second year ASD Fitness co-founders Adam and Dedra Leapley, who raised a child on the autism spectrum, sponsored Sensitive Santa at their annual Christmas party.

In addition to fitness, the Leapleys also want to provide social opportunities and fun for those on the spectrum.

“These are memories for the kids and their parents,” Dedra Leapley said.

Santa, at the height of his season now, said the ASD Fitness stop was a priority because “the experience is among the top three best experiences of my entire life.”

Santa and Dedra Leapley both said how touched they were by a parent’s comment about her son: “‘I’ve never seen him so happy.’”

Dr. Carol Weitzman, director of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Yale University, was there to just observe the delight on the faces of the visitors to Santa, some of whom she works with clinically.

Weitzman said it’s great for the kids and their families to be able to enjoy holiday activities.

“The parents are gratified” to see the kids enjoying tradition, she said.

Weitzman said community participation and involvement are important and without such opportunity in a specialized environment, some of the kids wouldn’t get the chance to visit Santa.