HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – It was a busy morning for Parkway Place, bringing Santa Claus himself to the mall bright and early for a meet-and-greet with a very specific group of boys and girls.
Normally on a Sunday, Parkway Place Mall doesn’t open until noon, but this Sunday only they opened at 9:30 a.m. for this year’s annual Santa Cares event, after a year off due to the pandemic.
It is part of the mall’s seasonal photo opportunity with Saint Nick himself; only Sunday’s early-open was tailor-made for children on the autism spectrum.
“When you think of going to a shopping center, you think of all your senses kind of being being ignited,” said Parkway Place General Manager Molly Bell. “You think about the décor, the lights and the music and you’re kind of transformed when you walk in For this morning, we’ve kind of reversed things a little bit.”
The mall partners with The Riley Behavioral and Education Center to make some necessary changes. The lights are low, the music is off, and the crowds are nonexistent. For some children on the spectrum, those things can serve as triggers for a sensory overload and cause a meltdown.
“It is true that a lot of times families just stay home with our kids because they’re scared of what other people might think,” said Melanie Merriweather, an assistant at The Riley Center Occupational Therapy.
One parent said they have gone through that exact issue in years past, so this opportunity is one they look forward to all year long.
“It makes the holidays special for us and less stressful,” parent Amy Book said. “No judgment, we can be ourselves, we can wander around, we can screech, we can squelch.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevetion (CDC) states one in every 44 children has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Merriweather says their numbers reflect that statistic, even forced to go on a waitlist for families seeking help.
She said that’s why finding ways to make holiday traditions like this more inclusive is so important.
“This is not something that you see everywhere so its awesome that Alabama, Northern Alabama in particular has made this available for kids in the community,” Merriweather concluded.