BY MARY WICOFF
DANVILLE — For a child meeting Santa for the first time, it can be a thrilling experience — or frightening. For children with autism spectrum and sensory disorders, it can be almost unbearable.
However, a first-time event last weekend gave those children a chance to share their wishes with Santa, without all of the overwhelming stimuli.
“The event was a success,” said Lori Acree, founder of Puzzled Minds-Vermilion County, an autism support group. “I heard from the parents who came that this is the first time their child has ever been able tolerate a visit with Santa, much less sit near or interact.”
Twelve families were invited and more than half of them showed up, she said.
“One parent was thrilled at her child’s acceptance, and another got a family portrait,” she said. “It was a joy to see the smiles and the relief on the faces of many of the parents who came. The children were all happy, and I think that makes for a very successful day.”
The “Sensory Santa” event at Immanuel Lutheran Church accommodated the children’s special needs. This activity is common in large metropolitan areas, Acree said, but this is the first time it’s been offered in central Illinois.
Children did not have to wait in a long line with noises, lights, and crowds that might hinder their participation. Appointments were taken so children could see Santa individually, which reduced stress, wait times and crowds.
Photos were taken without flash. The lighting was natural, and there was no music. A chair was set next to Santa for children who didn’t want to sit on his lap.
“We tried to eliminate the outside stimuli,” Acree said, adding that she even unplugged the soft drink machine so the humming wouldn’t bother the children.
The photos were taken free of charge, and the children also received a treat from Santa. They had a chance to do a simple craft and were given a gluten-free snack.
Jessica Nemecz, a counselor who works with families of children with autism and children with high-functioning autism, wasn’t able to attend the event, but she has high praise for the concept.
“I think Sensory Santa is a wonderful resource and support for families in our community,” she said. “It’s nice when someone recognizes the challenges of children with special needs and provides a traditional event like seeing Santa while providing accommodations based on those challenges.”
Acree said all of the parents loved the event, and she hopes to continue and expand the activity next year, if there’s enough interest.
The photographer was Annette McMillan of Hoopeston, who runs Sew Shoot Me, and Santa was portrayed by Scott Meredith of Petersburg. Margo Watson of Watseka helped with the event as well, and gave Acree the idea for it.
“It is so wonderful that people came from some distance away to support the families in our area,” she said.
About the group
Puzzled Minds-Vermilion County officially was started in the summer of 2012.
“I started it because I have traveled so many paths, often dead ends, trying to get a diagnosis and services for my child,” Acree said. “I just felt frustrated and alone, because of all the red tape, dealing with insurance, changes in providers, etc.”
Acree began this journey when her child was 2, and she quickly learned to become an advocate.
“I figured, if I have been through this, I can help others,” she said. “Plus, I feel sometimes like I can use some support. It can be tough, lonely, and frustrating — as well as joyous and wonderful.”
When Acree decided to start the group, she talked to Linda Tortorelli, who heads The Autism Program in Champaign, and she was eager to help. Tortorelli introduced her to Sheila Krein, a parent liaison. The word got out and the group was formed.
Originally it was geared for parents and caregivers, she said, but since has expanded to include professionals, as well. Danville District 118 and VASE, for example, have been wonderful this year with spreading the word about activities and meetings, as well as attending and speaking at meetings, she said.
The goal is to provide support and outreach, which Acree does with the group, as well as through emails, phone calls, and Facebook. Other goals are to bring awareness and activities to the area, have services in the area and provide a network.
Puzzled Minds has speakers most months on various topics, and this past summer partnered with The Autism Program of Illinois to provide a session on toilet training individuals with special needs, not just autism.
“I have also spoken to many groups about my journey,” she said. “So many people have offered their time and talents to speak, which shows that we have the same goals — awareness, services, and support.”
In March, Acree won the Vermilion County Hero award for community service. She plans to further expand the group and hopefully create a large network in the county for families to navigate services and support.
For more information about Puzzled Minds-Vermilion County, e-mail Lori Acree at email@example.com. There’s also a Facebook page.