With the bright lights, colourful gifts and jolly presence of Father Christmas, Santa’s grottos are a seasonal favourite for families across the UK. But not all children are able to enjoy them.
For thousands of children in Britain diagnosed with autism, the trip to sit on Santa’s knee can be a frightening mix of huge crowds and loud noises, a charity has said.
This year, dozens of autism-friendly Santa’s grottos have opened around the UK, launched by parents who want their children to be able to join in a magical part of Christmas without feeling distressed.
Instead of the huge queues, which can induce panic in some children with autism, the grottos have scheduled appointments or host only small groups. There are no flashing lights, Santa has been trained and the loud music has been replaced with a sensory room where the children can relax.
Jo-Ann D’Costa-Manuel, founder of the charity Autism Parent Empower, said more than a thousand parents had contacted her to say they were thrilled about her launch of an autism-friendly Santa’s grottoin Crawley, Sussex.
“For some families this will be the first time they will get the opportunity to experience the magic of Santa with their child,” she said. “For other families, who feel extremely isolated and misunderstood, they are comforted that awareness and acceptance is now unfolding into the mainstream and nationwide, too. A parent contacted me to say this was the first time in nine years she was able to take her son [to the grotto] – now that is what Christmas spirit is truly all about.”