‘Caring Santa’ turns a quiet ear to the wishes of autistic kids

Silence sits as awkwardly on Concord Mills as chain-link armor on a runway model. The mall needs music, lights, bustle and bodies to come properly to life. But in the first hours after dawn Sunday, long before stores opened to customers, you could make out individual words.

“Barbies” was the one that summoned a tear to Stephanie Sheppard’s eye.

The Mint Hill mom had taken daughter Brianna, 8, to the Caring Santa event for families with autistic children. Diet and supplements had brought the girl out of her closed world and into the one inhabited by her family, but Sheppard got a surprise when Santa beckoned Brianna over.

“Normally, she doesn’t answer questions,” said her mother. “She can identify things, but she doesn’t use complete sentences or respond verbally. When Santa asked what she wanted for Christmas and she said, ‘Barbies,’ I choked up.”

Lumps in throats were standard issue Sunday morning. Simon Property Group, which owns Concord Mills, teamed with the Greater Charlotte Chapter of Autism Speaks to repeat the success they had with a Caring Santa program last week at SouthPark.

Nan Gray, Concord Mills’ director of marketing and business development, woke at 4 a.m. and rousted volunteers to set out gift bags for kids – autistic and otherwise – and parents. Five types of fruit juice, water and packages of sliced apples and carrots lined a center table. (Sugar can trigger unfortunate reactions.) No music played. Lights remained subdued.

And the kids, who can quickly be overstimulated, responded without a single meltdown.

“A busy mall can overwhelm Charlie,” said Greensboro’s Brian Pearce of the son who’s about to turn 5. “He freezes up, and we have to go. Even here, he didn’t want to go to Santa; I had to hold him. But when he saw the ‘Minions’ hat they were giving away and a chocolate chip cookie, he went from covering his ears and being scared to smiling for the picture.”

Brian Pearce was visiting his mom in Charlotte, but parents of autistic kids regularly make long drives to seek services. Shea Capps of Jamestown bundled son Holden (who’s 5) and non-autistic daughter Harper (3  1/2) into the car for a 136-mile round-trip.

“I don’t know what ‘going to see Santa’ means to Holden,” she said. “He understands things I say to him, but I don’t know how to explain that concept. But he likes beards, and Santa had a book with a lot of lights, which appealed to him.

“His No. 1 problem is noise: He wears headphones a lot, but he didn’t need them today. Lines are also a problem, and he didn’t have to wait; he was free to walk around. This is something every autistic child ought to experience.” (Gray says Simon will hold two such mornings next December, accommodating 60 families.)

Santa, of course, had no problem adjusting. Nothing a kid’s gonna do will throw him.

“You have to be a little more sensitive,” Santa said. “One girl in a wheelchair didn’t want to come in (to the enclosure), so I went to her. They all react differently.

“If they’re nervous, I do ‘Peek-a-Boo Santa.’ They settle in my chair, and I go behind it and look over the top. That happened today – but you know, it can happen to any child any time.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232