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St. Francis offers autism-friendly Santa visits on Dec. 8

December 3, 2012
By Becca Milliron , For the Mirror

LORETTO - The Autism Task Force at St. Francis University will sponsor its first Sensitive Santa from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 8. The event will take place at the DiSepio Institute.

The program will allow children with special or sensory needs and their families to have a meet-and-greet with Santa as well as participate in winter activities. Reservations are needed for Sensitive Santa. Time slots to meet a will be provided in 10-minute intervals. More time will be provided if necessary. The environment will focus on providing a sensory friendly environment.

"A lot of autistic or special needs children have sensory issues which means bright lights, loud noises and echoes may have a negative effect, and due to this many of these children can't go to malls and see Santa," Don Walkovich, the Interim Dean for the School of Health Scientists, said.

Children will have the opportunity to touch a Santa suit to allow students to adjust before meeting him. Santa will be stationed in a separate room from the activities. If children aren't comfortable being in the same room as Santa, they can go to a separate room and Skype with him.

"We hope this can be a subdued environment where children, and their families can really interact with Santa in a way they may not have been able to before," Walkovich said.

Guests can also visit the St. Francis Toy Lending Library. This program allows children to check out toys.

Fact Box

If you go

What: Sensitive Santa, sponsored by The Autism Task Force at St. Francis University

When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 8

Where: The DiSepio Institute at St. Francis University, Loretto

Details: Call Amy Hudkins at 472-2792 to make reservations.

"In the DiSepio Institute, we have a room filled with toys. Each section is ... by age groups and parents can come and take a toy for their children," Walkovich said. "We also provide a card for each toy that describes how to use the toy and what skills it can help the child improve."

There also will be catalogs available that focus on toys for children with autism and other special needs. And parents can be referred to other organizations in the area.

"The entire day will center around making children feel the traditional Christmas experience while helping parents with other services," Walkovich said.

There will be gluten-free and casein-free refreshments.

The task force was formed in October of this year. The organization is composed of faculty, staff, students and parents of autistic children.

"A group of us at the DiSepio Institute saw that there was a high number of children diagnosed with autism, and we saw a need in the community that we wanted to try to meet," Walkovich said.

The DiSepio Institute recently started a pediatrics physical therapy center with their other physical and occupational therapies offered.



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