Visiting Santa Claus at his grotto is one of the highlights of Christmas for many children, however the experience can be unnerving for others, particularly children with autism. The crowds, loud music and talking to a stranger can all prove challenging, so much so that parent Julie Simpson was previously unable to take her autistic son Joe along to meet Father Christmas.
However, after reading about similar schemes in the USA and Canada, Julie was inspired to launch Liverpool's first autism-friendly grotto in 2014. She approached Dobbies Liverpool and worked closely with the store champion, Angela, to create a unique experience that proved incredibly successful when it launched that year and ever since. Julie has now been able to take Joe to the grotto for the past three years, and while he was initially unsure, he is now excited to meet Santa again.
Julie Simpson's son now looks forward to meeting Santa
We caught up with Angela, Dobbies' Liverpool Community Champion, to find out more about the grottos and how each Santa Claus is specially trained by Julie to put children at ease. "Things they are advised not to say include 'I'll be coming down your chimney' and 'Have you been good?' The reason for this is because autistic children take things very literally and thinking that someone had access to their house would scare them and they would be worried that they hadn't been 'good enough'," Angela explained.
"To combat this, the Father Christmas' are advised to ask children where they would like them to leave their presents and suggest that they get a magic key which only lasts for one night to be able to deliver their gifts. They also say to the children, 'try and be best you can be' instead of 'make sure you’re good' or 'I'm watching you'." The Father Christmas' must also close the conversation and are advised not to touch the children (e.g. patting on shoulder) as some children don't like it.
The grotto has been open since 2014
That is not the only difference compared to other grottos. "The grottos are much quieter as the rest of centre is closed and the music is turned down," Angela said. "Staff know what to expect and parents are all in the same boat. Relaxed staff – children are able to touch displays and won't get told off."
Now in its fourth year, the grotto has been so successful that other centres are being considered. "The parents love it and for most of the children, it's the first time they've even been able to have a photo taken with Father Christmas and to meet him," the Dobbies Community Champion said. "The children who have been going for the past three years now have it in their diaries and get excited to come along."
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