Over 180 malls across the U.S. are offering a calmer holiday experience for kids with autism and other special needs.

By Liz Loerke
Updated November 18, 2016
Karen Bleier/Getty Images

Taking a holiday photo with Santa Claus is an annual tradition for many families. But for children with autism and other special needs, visiting Santa at the local mall can be anything but jolly. The crowds, crying children, bright lights, and blaring holiday music can be over-stimulating and overwhelming for children with autism—and their families.

Which is why Autism Speaks and Noerr Programs Corporation have partnered to host sensory-friendly Santa experiences at over 180 malls across the country. The programs will provide families of children with autism and other special needs the chance to connect with Santa in a more controlled and welcoming environment on Sunday, November 20 and Sunday, December 4.

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As part of the event, participating malls will open two hours early to allow children to meet Santa and have their photo taken with him. The event is free to attend, and families will have the opportunity to purchase any photos taken. By signing up for the event, families will have a scheduled time slot to visit with Santa, avoiding the stress of waiting in long lines. Additionally, the Santas have been specially trained to best meet the needs of the children visiting. “At Autism Speaks, we’re always looking to increase understanding and acceptance, and this is a great way to start that,” Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer for Autism Speaks, tells Real Simple.

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Visiting a sensory-friendly Santa can also be great practice. Says Goring, “By attending the sensory-friendly event, some children are able to get used to the experience and learn what to expect so that they do not need to take advantage of the same accommodations down the road.”

To find and sign up for a Sensory-Friendly Santa event near you, visit the Autism Speaks website.