Malls in Watertown, Burlington offer a quieter Santa experience for special needs children

Seven-year-old Anon Unseethaharuthai carefully selected the outfit the night before he knew he would meet Santa Claus, pairing a crisp, red shirt with green pajama pants, keeping true to the colors and spirit of Christmas.

It would be his first time getting up close to old St. Nick.

Anon is autistic, something his mother said inhibits him from interacting with strangers and calmly waiting in line — key elements of the popular childhood tradition of meeting the big man in red.

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But an event at Watertown’s Arsenal Mall last Sunday provided a more relaxed environment, specifically created for children with special needs.

Anon felt comfortable enough to sit down next to a stranger clad in a red velvet suit, and carefully color in pictures of Santa and his reindeer, while occasionally beaming up at his newly found, white-bearded friend.

“This is the first time my son has been able to take a picture with Santa,” said Watertown resident Waree Yimsiriwatthana, Anon’s mother, who was also sporting a wide smile. “Last year, he couldn’t do it — there was too much staying in one place. Usually he’ll get scared or wander away, but this time he loved it.”

So did his mom — except for the green pajama pants, which she made him ditch before heading to the mall.

Mall employees held the two-hour event before the shopping center officially opened for business on a busy holiday-season weekend, and set the stage by dimming the lights, shutting off escalators and fountains, and turning down the background Christmas music, in order to create a relaxed environment for children with mental disabilities.

The mall also positioned the Santa set near handicapped-accessible ramps, and cleared enough space to meet the needs of kids with physical disabilities, and provided simplified crafts and snacks to better accommodate the children, said Rachel Molina, the shopping center’s marketing director.

The event, dubbed “Caring Santa,” was developed through a collaboration between the mall’s owner, Simon Property Group, and Ability Path, a nonprofit organization that supports parents of children with special needs. The event debuted last year at several Simon malls, but last Sunday was the first time at the Arsenal Mall, Molina said.

The event organizers also provided a system in which children could take numbers to sit on Santa’s lap instead of waiting in the traditional line. However, the take-a-number system proved unnecessary in Watertown, as the event drew just three families.

“I think it would have been better if there were more children,” Molina said. “We wish we had a better turnout, but we’ll just promote it more next year.”

Meanwhile, the Burlington Mall, 30 minutes north of Watertown, saw a turnout of about 15 special-needs families last Sunday at its “Caring Santa” event, mall representatives said.

Acton resident Heidi Friedman said she appreciated attending the Burlington event so much last December that she decided to help garner attention for it this year.

“When I first got the e-mail last year, I thought that it sounded awesome, because I have three autistic sons, and they do not do well waiting in line and with all the noises of the mall,” she said.

Friedman said her attempts to have her sons photographed calmly with Santa in previous holiday seasons were always thwarted.

“We tried twice before, and both of them ended up being kind of a joke picture, because all three were screaming and crying in the picture,” she said.

“There’s a lot of things families with special needs don’t get to go do, because it becomes more painstaking than gratifying,” she added. “This is one of those instances where sometimes it’s easier to just give up — it’s something you don’t have access to because of your kids’ needs. It’s nice that someone said, ‘No, we won’t give up. We’ll find a way.’ ”

After Friedman took her sons — Logan, 7, Tristan, 6, and Ethan, 3 — to the Burlington Mall event last year, she said, her kids this time looked forward to greeting Santa, a milestone for her family.

“Last year, they didn’t want to go — we had to talk them into it,” Friedman said, adding that she always faces challenges getting her sons out the door. “But this year, they weren’t afraid to go. They loved it.”

Friedman said she noticed many parents and families smiling at last weekend’s gathering, many pleasantly surprised that their kids could construct ornaments, color Christmas-themed pictures, write letters to Santa, and snack on light refreshments as they waited their turn.

And Friedman, who said she gets asked to leave public places on a regular basis because of disruptive behavior by her sons, said she felt relieved knowing they could explore the Caring Santa area set up in the closed mall without causing a scene.

“I felt like a five-star hotel guest, when normally I’m usually escorted out of places because my kids are too crazy,” she said, chuckling.

In Watertown last weekend, 12-year-old Tyler Piliero ran ahead of his mother into the Arsenal Mall to investigate the Santa village display, and happily clambered onto St. Nick’s lap upon command and enthusiastically smiled while camera shutters clicked.

As Tyler returned to throw his arms around his mom, Newton resident Pamela Piliero, in an ecstatic hug, she urged him to show Santa his gift wish list. He happily trotted back to Santa, showing him the page of paper where he had scrawled such items as a Wii basketball game, a “Guess Who?” board game, and sweaters.

“Anything you can do would be great,” his mom cajoled Santa conspiratorially. “He’s been great this year.”

As Tyler talked to Santa, his mom said that although this was not their first picture with Santa, she felt more relaxed at the special event.

“Typically, we’ll be really rushed, and there’s not enough time to make sure he’s smiling,” Piliero said, keeping an eye on her son as he wandered the village set. “It’s important to us to have the time to talk to Santa, and he had a great smile in the picture.”

As Tyler returned to hug his mom once more, she beamed as she collected him in her arms. “And, we’re having a great day,” she said proudly, hugging him back.