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Meeting Santa without the stress

About 20 children got the chance to make Christmas memories in a setting designed just for them at Avera Therapy Pediatrics' first-ever Sensory Santa event on Sunday afternoon.

Cayden Hines, 4, begins work on a low-texture craft with help from his mother Melissa Hines, at right, and physical therapist Jenna Stroup after meeting Santa on Sunday. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)
Cayden Hines, 4, begins work on a low-texture craft with help from his mother Melissa Hines, at right, and physical therapist Jenna Stroup after meeting Santa on Sunday. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)

About 20 children got the chance to make Christmas memories in a setting designed just for them at Avera Therapy Pediatrics' first-ever Sensory Santa event on Sunday afternoon.

The event, held at Avera Therapy's East Havens Avenue location in Mitchell, was created with the intention of letting children who are unable to or uncomfortable with meeting Santa Claus in a busier, more public setting to have that experience without the stress.

"This was open to the public, but targeted toward children with sensory difficulties, which means they have difficulties interpreting their environment, whether it be touch or sound, music, crowds," said Melissa Brissette, an occupational therapist who organized the event. "They just have triggers that will elicit undesirable behaviors and cause undue stress on the child and on the family."

Brissette began planning the event when Melissa Hines, the mother of one of Brissette's patients, 4-year-old Cayden Hines, inquired about holiday events more accommodating to her son's needs than traditional events that involve lots of people, noise and other sensory stimuli.

"I was approached by (Melissa Hines) saying that, 'You know what, my child has never been able to participate with Santa or really any holiday event because there's lots of people and he'll start to scream, and I feel very uncomfortable because people are watching me and looking at me, and they're really, I feel, judging my parenting,'" Brissette said. "And they don't see it's actually that the child has autism."

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Melissa Hines said she decided to ask Brissette for options following Halloween, during which Cayden Hines was unable to go trick-or-treating.

"He really couldn't do a lot for Halloween, because it's just too much for him. Therapies here have helped a lot, but just even going to the grocery store can be a lot for him," Hines said.

Brissette began looking around for events that would meet the Hines family's needs, but soon found that events specifically designed for children with sensory difficulties are typically only offered in bigger cities.

"We kind of looked around and couldn't find anything, and so we decided to create an event so he could have his picture taken with Santa," Brissette said.

At the Sensory Santa event, which Brissette hopes will be held on an annual basis, lights were dimmed in the room where children met Santa, who was intentionally quiet.

Children were scheduled to arrive to have their photos taken in one of 20 10-minute time slots, eliminating the need to wait in line, and the craft they had the option to do after meeting Santa was designed to have little texture, rather than one involving sticky substances that could be less tolerable.

"Santa's part of childhood, so it's trying to give the childhood back to some of these children that haven't had a real normal childhood, that have been to multiple doctors' appointments and (had) multiple struggles that children at this age should not have to encounter," Brissette said.

Sensory Santa was sponsored by several local businesses, and students from Parkston's Health Occupations Students of America (HOSA) program also helped at the event, assisting with crafts and serving snacks.

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Ashley Cotton, 3, lists what she hopes to get for Christmas during the Sensory Santa event at Avera Therapy on Sunday afternoon. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)
Ashley Cotton, 3, lists what she hopes to get for Christmas during the Sensory Santa event at Avera Therapy on Sunday afternoon. (Ellen Bardash / Republic)

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