'Sensory Santa' helps children with autism, other special needs

They’re getting it via “Sensory Visits with Santa,” a two-hour program designed for children with sensory processing disorder, held each Sunday in December prior to opening hours at the $350 million mixed-use project.

“Sensory Visits” inside the Foundry, Liberty Center’s enclosed mall, feature lower lighting, no music and the opportunity to take part in the holiday tradition of visiting with Santa free from distractions.

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For parents Aldo and Thalita Albieri of West Chester Township, that means a meltdown-free experience for 3-year-old son Anthony, who was diagnosed in 2015 with sensory processing disorder, as well as a good time for younger son Eric.

“This is fantastic,” Aldo Albieri said during a Liberty Center visit last Sunday. “My son, with a lot of people, noise and lights usually has a very out-of-normal behavior and now, here, being in a calm environment, he’s behaving well. It’s offering an opportunity for us to have a good time with our kids for Christmas.”

Albieri said it is “priceless” that Liberty Center is carving out the time to offer the program.

“We have today a lot of support from the school district … for his disorder, but we always miss that private initiative to support that, as well. I think this is a good thing,” he said.

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Edwin Jones and Shelby Jeffries, of Hamilton, said the experience of taking 7-year-old son Ashton, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism with sensory processing disorder and moderate hearing loss five years ago, was “so much easier” than a typical Santa visit at a mall.

“You don’t have to worry about all the distractions, the noises,” she said. “It’s great that they do this for the kids. I love it.”

Marty Plas said he started in the red-suited role three years ago after a more than 30-year career as a special needs teacher.

“They say do things you love when you retire,” he said. “This seemed like a perfect fit. What I’ve experienced and the skills that I’ve had in the classroom transfer to being a Santa very well.”

Parents may stop by the Santa set to make a free, same-day reservation to see Santa during the “Sensory Visits” times of 8 - 10 a.m. Sunday.

“We want everyone to enjoy the traditions of the holidays, and that includes visits with Santa,” said Kevin Cedik, general manager of Liberty Center.

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