'Sensitive' Santa in Orange brings joy to kids on autism spectrum
New Haven Register - 12/17/2018
Dec. 17--ORANGE -- Far away from the stressful, maddening lines, crowds, noise and bright lights of the mall Sunday, children on the autism spectrum visited a "sensitive" Santa, asking for everything from black socks to a grand piano.
Santa, who looked a lot like Mike Storz, president of the award-winning Chapel Haven Schleifer Center, a school for those with autism and other special needs, had the honed intuition to tell who wanted a hug, a handshake, a knee to sit on or a more separate place next to him on the bench.
Santa also understood those with sensory issues who wanted to constantly run their fingers across his red velvet suit or tug his white beard. He spoke softly, he didn't care if the visitors looked him in the eye and was selective with the ho-ho-hos, depending on the visitor.
They went in to see Santa one by one.
The special occasion was the annual Christmas bash at ASD Fitness, 307 Boston Post Road, a center led by Adam and Dedra Leapley and dedicated to the fitness, social wellness of those on the autism spectrum and with other special needs. The party included arts and crafts and making Christmas cards for residents of a local nursing home.
"Out of all the events I attend each year, this is a special treat," Santa said. "The way their eyes light up, the way their body language changes. Happiness is just jumping out of them."
Antonio, 13, asked for an Infinus nerf gun; Anthony, 12, looked awkward opening his gift from Santa in front of the jolly old Elf, so Santa reassured him, "If you want to save it for later, that's OK too; Alex, 9, heard right away reassuringly from Santa that he made the "nice list" and asked Alex, "Do you know what that means?" Alex responded, "I get presents."
Alex's mother, Tori-Anne Dauria, said visiting Santa at ASD, where Alex is a member and feels comfortable, is "way easier than the whole thing of waiting in line at the mall."
"He doesn't like noise or having other kids around and he has impulse issues," Dauria said. "We love it here (at ASD Fitness); it opened up a whole world for us."
Anthony's father, Anthony Palluzzi, said his son's favorite things are Santa Claus and Christmas. "It was sweet," he said of his son's visit with Santa. "This is a comfortable place," Palluzzi said.
Latareece Vereen said her son, Owen, 8, had a nice visit with Santa without worrying about other kids around him.
"I love it -- it's exciting for him," she said.
Brenda, one adult ASD Fitness member on the spectrum who visited, was asked by Santa what she wanted and replied, "Everything."
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