His face is adorned with a long white beard, rosy cheeks, expressive eyes, and his laugh is a soft ho, ho, ho. For Tre Galbraith, 5, of Provo, he is the perfect “Quiet Santa.”
For the first time, University Place is offering a special Christmas present to children who have sensory issues, anxiety, autism, Attention Deficit Disorder or other issues that make visiting a mall Santa nearly impossible.
In conjunction with the Utah Autism Academy, University Place is providing a quiet room with soft lighting and a warm atmosphere for children to come and meet “Quiet Santa” without the hustle and bustle of shoppers and all the sounds and confusion that go with a busy mall.
Parents can go online and reserve a 15-minute visit with the Quiet Santa. It allows the child to meet Santa on their terms and to have time to warm up to the jolly fellow.
In turn, Santa doesn’t just sit on his throne all day, but is on the floor playing with the children while family members are sitting in a comfortable living room setting sponsored by mall anchor, RC Willey.
“This is really exciting for me,” said Santa (through his personal and closest friend Eric Thorkelsen of Orem).
“Kids that shy away from touch see me play with toys,” Santa said.
Santa admits he hasn’t worked this closely with autistic children and says he knows this is another aspect of his learning about and loving children.
“I have felt this is a calling,” Santa said.
Santa said he received specialized training from the Utah Autism Academy, as did the Santa helpers provided by staff at from University Place.
But what this Quiet Santa is all about is the children and that is where Tre comes in.
“Tre is on the autism spectrum,” said Megan Galbraith, Tre’s mother. “We’ve never been able to have Tre visit Santa, it’s too overwhelming with the long lines and sound.”
Meeting the Quiet Santa was a whole new and wonderful experience for Tre, who has difficulty communicating other than yes, no or thank you to people he doesn’t know and trust.
“He’s warmed up and he knows exactly who he’s playing with,” Megan Galbraith said. “With Christmas come crowds and noise and sensory overload. We can’t participate. This opportunity has opened a door.”
During Tre’s visit with Santa he was able to use toys that are made specific to the needs of children with sensory issues.
Perhaps the most fun for both Tre and Santa was playing with the handheld bottle of bubbles that shoots out numerous bubbles at a time.
When the suggestion to try another toy came from his mom, Tre said, “play more bubbles” and with a light ho, ho, ho they were sitting together popping bubbles.
“I like that,” Megan Galbraith said. “It’s set up like a play time instead of take a picture and go. It’s nice to have an enclosed place. Tre is sometimes a runner.”
But for Galbraith, the interaction between the two was a precious moment of photo opportunity.
“Tre can actually hear Santa’s voice,” she said.
Nichelle Jensen, who works with University Place’s public relations and public outreach offices came up with the idea and it was approved.
“I’m learning what I want to make better for next year,” Jensen said as she watched the interaction with Tre and Santa.
“This is amazing,” she said.
Holli Child, a lead therapist with Utah Autism Academy worked with Santa and Jensen to make it special for children.
“This is a new concept to us,” Child said. “I couldn’t tell you if there are others. Nichelle reached out to us. University Place has really done their research.”
Child said not only will the individual be able to enjoy Santa and change emotionally, but the families will also be changed.
“It will create awareness,” Child said. “As an organization we’re excited to have this connection. One of our goals is to have persons with autism be included.”
Child said they want these interactions to be meaningful and to create interaction. The idea is to get Santa on the child’s level.
By the time Tre’s visit was over, he gave high five’s all around, said thank you and left with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Santa’s smile was the same; however most everyone there who experienced the inter actions would probably have to admit that twinkle was more like happy tears and a renewed love of what the Christmas season is all about.
The Quiet Santa is available from 8 to 10 a.m. (prior to the mall opening) Nov. 27 to 30, and Dec. 1- to 4 in 15 minute increments. Visits are by reservation only.
To reserve a time with the Quiet Santa register online at www.universityplaceorem.com/events. Look for Quiet Santa and open the link to register.