Livonia — Lara Kapalla-Bondi carefully unstraps her son from his wheelchair and gently picks him up in her arms.
She approaches Santa, sits beside him holding her son on her lap and leans toward Cole’s ear. “Do you know who this is?” asks Kapalla-Bondi of Bloomfield Hills.
Cole Kapalla, 9, slowly lifts his head and broadly smiles at Santa. He has cerebral palsy, visual impairment, developmental delays and a limited vocabulary.
But his heart spoke. He extended his hand toward Santa and leaned into the big guy’s chest, asking for a hug. Santa obliged, tenderly embracing the child.
“You did a great job,” Santa said softly. Mom carefully strapped her son back in his wheelchair, gathered up her younger son, Cooper Kapalla, 5, who is not a special needs child, and excitedly waited to see how the photo with Santa turned out.
This scene was repeated dozens of times Sunday when 60 to 70 families of children with special needs spent time with Santa at Laurel Park Place early in the morning before the crowds converged. Billed as time with a “Special needs Santa,” children from everywhere on the autism spectrum to those without mobility, were able to visit with Santa in a light-sensitive environment. There was no mall music, and photos were taken without a camera flash. Such an overload of stimuli — bright lights, music, loud talking and laughter, often can trigger meltdowns, parents say.
Kapalla-Bondi was grateful for the special time.
“I’ve had to take time off from work in the past to take them to see Santa in the middle of the day to avoid long lines, so I’m thankful not to have to miss work to do this, “ she said.
She said she once visited a mall during regular hours to visit Santa, who was perched on a higher stage.
“There was a wheelchair lift, but the people there hadn’t used it before, and it took about 20 minutes for them to get it to work,” she said. “This was much better because it was handicap-accessible.”
The Centers for Disease Control reports 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have autism. “Autism” is one of many words that describe a wide range, or “spectrum” of certain unusual or atypical behaviors and patterns of social interaction and communication.
Julie Sartor said her son Alex Sartor, 3, whom she adopted when he was 1-year-old, was diagnosed with OMS syndrome, or opsoclonus myoclonus syndrome, a rare neurological disorder of unknown causes that appears to be the result of an autoimmune process involving the nervous system. It affects as few as 1 in 10 million people each year.
Sartor was at the mall with Alex and her three daughters, Emily, 15, Faith, 11, and Becky, 10, who kept close watch on the active child.
Asked what he thought about visiting Santa, Alex thought a moment and replied, “I want to know where Mrs. Claus was,” he said. Asked another question about Santa, he was not about to forget about Santa’s wife. “But where was she?” he asked. “I wanted to give her a hug.”
Sartor said this was the first year her son was cleared to be around people. “We’re working on socialization now,” she said. She said she did not mind the early Santa hours Sunday— from 9-11 a.m. “I would get up at any time to do this,” she said.
Parents didn’t have to worry about getting the side eye from other parents if their child had a meltdown in the middle of the floor because other parents would “get it.” Some children did have ear-splitting meltdowns. Others rebuffed Santa, refusing to sit near him, often bursting into tears. While others still were more interested in the gift-wrapped props near Santa’s seat, or the empty glass display case nearby that ordinarily would house the fireplace but which was turned off Sunday to avoid distracting the children.
But aren’t a lot of kids like this when they visit Santa?
Dominic Cervantes, 5, had a screaming, kicking and crying meltdown on the floor moments before his turn in line. His mom, also got down on the floor, trying everything to soothe him.
Then, miraculously, when it was his turn, the clouds parted, the sun came out and Dominic walked up to Santa, sat down next to him, repeatedly wiped away the tears and smiled for the camera. He even allowed Santa to embrace him.
Mom Kasey Cervantes of Livonia, who said Dominic was diagnosed on the severe autism spectrum, was relieved.
“I was hoping and praying and thinking, ‘We’re almost there, we’re almost there,’ ” she said right before her son’s meltdown ended. “I wasn’t sure how he would do. I’m really happy about this, and the picture turned out awesome,” she said pulling it out of the envelope featuring a smiling Dominic.
Many other children shyly approached Santa and offered him hugs as Santa presented them with paper crowns.
Steve Bockman came up with the idea. His son is 18 years old and is on the autism spectrum.
“This started when my son was 5 years old,” said Bockman. “The opportunity for kids to visit Santa was usually granted at private parties but I wanted him to have the experience at a mall like other kids.”
So Bockman, who works in outreach and engagement for Centria Health care, which presented the event, and his ex-wife began hosting the visits at the Henry Ford Museum. For the last 11 years, they were at Twelve Oaks Mall.
“But the mall decided they wanted to go in another direction, so I approached Laurel Park Place and they said yes,” said Bockman. “The original focus was on children with autism, but as you can see, there are children with a variety of special needs here. If some of the kids didn’t have this, they wouldn’t be able to see Santa at all.”