The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 25, 2012

Event geared to special-needs kids

Arlene Johns

— For parents of special-needs children, a visit with Santa may be out of the question.

They don’t get to overhear a secret wish for a Red Ryder BB gun or watch proudly as their child is photographed while sitting on Santa’s knee.

Often, children with autism or sensory issues are not able to handle the overly stimulating environment associated with such an outing. Other times, the location is not conducive to someone with a disability.

But the Autism Task Force at St. Francis University is hosting an event that may make it possible for those children to participate in a tradition they may have missed out on.

The DiSepio Institute for Rural Health & Wellness at the university will host its first Sensitive Santa event from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 8. Time slots will be available by reservation in 10 minute increments. Special-needs children and their parents and siblings can participate in the free activities and enjoy gluten-free/casein-free refreshments. Complimentary photos with Santa will be provided.

Don Walkovich, director of the DiSepio Institute, said the Autism Task Force held its first meeting last month and quickly came up with the Sensitive Santa idea.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What are the needs?’ ” Walkovich said. “The idea for the visit to Santa was one of the first things that came up. Everybody loved the idea.

“The sensory environment makes such a difference for these kids.”

Amy Hudkins, an instructor of occupational therapy who helped coordinate the event, said every possible accommodation will be made ensure that the child enjoys the experience.

“First of all, the DiSepio Institute is completely handicapped accessible,” Hudkins noted.

Therapists will be on hand to assist with the children. Lights can be dimmed and decorations will be at a minimum. If a child does not want to sit on Santa’s lap, a chair will be provided for the child to sit on.

“Santa is willing to sit on the floor with a child if that works better,” Hudkins said. “Or the child will be able to Skype with Santa.

“We’ll do nothing – more or less – than what they need,” Hudkins said.

Parents who call for a reservation will be interviewed about the child’s needs so preparations can be made.

Children who attend will receive a small gift bag and parents will receive a bag with information on available resources, Hudkins said.

One of the resources Walkovich wants parents to be aware of is the university’s toy lending library.

“It functions like a book library,” he said. “Children can check out a toy.”

The toys are categorized by age and ability – from birth to teens.

“It’s particularily good to see if a child is going to respond to a toy,” Walkovich said. “Students will be on hand to show the parents how to play with a child with a toy.”

Walkovich said the Autism Task Force hopes to become “ a kind of clearinghouse for the Cambria/Somerset region for everything about autism.

“Parents sometimes have no idea where to go.”

The task force is made up of community members, parents, students, professors and staff members and local agencies.

It was created because “we recognized that the diagnosis of autism is increasing greatly,” Walkovich said.

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