Lesley Legakis typically dreaded taking her special-needs son, Abraham, to see Santa for the requisite holiday photos for family and friends.
What would be merely irritating for some kids — a snack, a bathroom trip and a long wait in line — would be a major ordeal for her 5-year-old autistic child given all the distractions and noises, she said.
“It would be the surprise face: ‘Get me out of here. I can’t believe you are doing this to me,’ ” Legakis said. “Or, you sit by Santa and kind put his legs over Santa’s knees and you shimmy out real quick and you hope they get a picture before he realizes that you have left him.
“We haven’t had any great Santa pictures.”
But on Sunday the Windsor mom could relax as she and 24 other special-needs families from the region participated in the Sensitive Santa event sponsored by the Matrix Parent Network and Resource Center.
It was the exact opposite of the typical mall Santa experience of bright lights, loud noises and assembly-line atmospherics that generations of families have endured and that have been parodied in films such as “A Christmas Story,” not to mention its evil twin, “Bad Santa.”
Instead, each family on Sunday had approximately 15 minutes on the studio dance floor at The Movement Lab studio in Santa Rosa to interact with Santa on the child’s terms, not St. Nick’s. They were led into the room by two elves as soft music was barely audible and the lights could be dimmed to the preferences of the 40 participating children.
That meant for Jim Flores of Rohnert Park, who played Santa during the first shift, occasionally getting on the floor with the child and his or her siblings. There were three Santas who donated their time Sunday.
Sometimes, he let the child stand back and just observe. He would have a note on each child before he or she entered, so he could ask questions. There would be no “ho, ho, ho” in a loud voice, and the kid had the choice on whether or not to sit on Santa’s lap. He was more like a Zen Santa.
“The mall experience to me is just a madhouse,” Flores said.
A photographer trailed the entourage looking for the best candid shot. Afterward, there would be Legos and Play-Doh and treats and drinks available. The event was free.
“I had no exactly no expectations,” said Flores, who has an autistic grandchild. “I have seen autistic kids in every level of the spectrum. Some kids were very verbal. And other kids were absolutely not verbal at all. Some kids wanted to be hugged. Others didn’t want to be touched.”
One child just wanted to point to Flores’ nose.
Matrix intends to make the Santa event an annual tradition, especially as it serves families in Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Solano counties, said Sarah Ponsford, a board member for the nonprofit organization that provides support to parents of special-needs children.
Gina Flores, a parent volunteer who is Jim Flores’ daughter-in-law, said she read about a similar event in another state and realized Sonoma County had nothing similar. Some children who participated Sunday had never had a Santa experience.