This morning, a local mall hosted a Sensitive Santa event. Open to kids with autism and other special needs, it took place before the mall officially opened for the day. The lights were down, there was no music playing over the speakers, and no shopping bags to trip over. There was a Christmas movie playing in one corner and a table filled with arts and crafts in another.
At the center, there was Santa. Sitting in his green suede chair in front of the largest Christmas tree I had ever seen, he exchanged kind words with brave boys and girls. I can imagine what they talked about; the new toys they wanted, and if his beard was real. Words and phrases Caiden may never say.
We knelt in an empty area, still close enough to see the Big Man, but not be in the way as we attempted to soothe Caiden out of a meltdown. We had gotten almost all the way to the check-in table when he lost it. I had tried desperately to hold back the tears as I gave the woman our name, failing miserably, it took several attempts to get an audible response out.
For fifteen minutes, we rubbed circles on his back, offered toys and snacks and to carry him, and try to protect his head while he writhed on the floor. He didn't want to leave, but he didn't want to be there either.
I cried some more, but I wasn't embarrassed. He had done so well last year, even been excited to see Santa, but the effects of his most recent regression were out in full force. He was going to miss out on something he had enjoyed because his diagnoses got in the way. It wasn't fair, it made me angry seeing just how much he had lost to his mysterious condition. He deserves a magical moment as well, especially with how hard this year has been on him, I wanted him to have that.
The woman who seemed to be running the event (I wish I'd gotten her name) pulled up videos on her phone to try and distract him. It didn't work unfortunately, but she was determined to help us.
He eventually noticed a few balloons on a shop sign and she allowed him to play with them. He immediately calmed down, even bouncing them back and forth between the two of them. Playing with a complete stranger, he was happy.
We tried again to approach Santa, but he simply wasn't having it and began to get upset so we backed off.
Then she hit us with it.
They were working on getting him more balloons. If we wanted to wait a few more minutes, we could lure him in front of the camera with them. Definitely worth a shot.
He was still nervous, to the point that he crawled in front of Santa to get to the balloons, but he smiled. His face lit up and we were able to get a slightly candid, slightly staged picture of them. It was perfect. As quickly as he could, he ran past Santa to show daddy his balloons, but they'd captured an amazing moment.
Santa held his hand out to me and gave me a hug and pat on the back. He said Caiden was a great kid and we were doing awesome. I sobbed some more and went to pick out our pictures.
When Santa says you're doing a good job, you just can't help but believe it.
I expected him to have a hard time, but I wasn't prepared for just how difficult it would be for him, or how perfect his picture would come out despite the obstacles in getting it. Before we left however, I made sure I thanked the woman who went out of her way to get Caiden some balloons so we could have such a magical picture. I hugged her and we both cried together just watching how happy Caiden was with the balloons.
As we were walking away, I heard her say to the cameraman, "that's the reason why we do this."
And I'm so incredibly thankful there are people like her who do.