Max Denning

Santa and Mrs. Claus will be offering a different type of experience for special needs children and their families in La Grande.

The Autism Society of Oregon is hosting a sensory-friendly Santa from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. tonight at Tri-County Equipment, 62460 Commerce Road, for the first time ever in La Grande. While the society had previously asked families to reserve a time, organizer JulieKay Dudley said families are welcome to drop in as well.

Dudley, the Autism Society of Oregon’s Region 1 representative, said she helped organize a sensory-friendly Santa event after families in the area asked her about the possibility of having one last year in La Grande. Some had seen advertisements for a sensory-friendly experience with Mr. Claus in Portland.

“We didn’t have enough time to get it together last year, so we put it forward to this year,” Dudley said.

The Autism Society organizes sensory-friendly Santas in all 50 states around the holidays. Children with all types of special needs, not just autism, are welcome to come meet Santa in a calm environment.

The entire experience of visiting Santa can be a “sensory overload” for children with special needs, Dudley said, adding that the children are often uncomfortable approaching strangers.

“The line is part of it, and there’s usually a lot going on,” she said. “We try to take the sensory part down a few notches. Usually the Santas are kind of in a rush.”

One of the main ways Dudley and the local branch of the Autism Society is hoping to combat that is by giving families a 30-minute block to spend with Santa and Mrs. Claus. This gives the children ample time to acclimate to the big man in the bright red suit. In addition to having a chance to take a photograph with Santa, the La Grande event will include snacks, sub sandwiches and other activities such as coloring.

“We let the kids decide when they want to approach Santa,” Dudley said. “He is just sitting there and waiting for them. We let the kids dictate when they are ready, so there’s no pressure for them.”

As for Santa and Mrs. Claus (parents, don’t let your children read past here) they will be portrayed by individuals who have experience working with special needs children. If problems do arise, Dudley will be there the entire four hours.

“I will be there to direct them if there are any special issues,” she said. “I’ve been dealing with autism as a therapist, social worker and parent for 30 years, so I’ve kind of got this.”

As of Friday morning, eight families had reserved time blocks to see Santa, Dudley said. She said parents and siblings are encouraged to attend the event.

“We want this to be a fun thing that families can do with their special needs family member,” she said.

Dudley said each family will receive a complimentary professional family photo. Picture packages will be available for purchase, but Dudley said families are also welcome to take their own photos.

All in all, Dudley is hoping to provide families with “a positive Santa visit experience.”

Visits with Santa are “often fraught with screaming and yelling,” Dudley said, noting that this is stressful also for the family of a special needs child.

“(We want this to be) a fun family time so that the families can enjoy something having to do with their special needs family member.”