Local Mike Heike’s four children sit with Santa Claus at the Families Advocating Autism Now event. (Shomik Mukherjee — Times-Standard)

Children with autism had a private audience with Santa Claus himself on Sunday morning, hours before opening time at the Bayshore Mall.

The mall, closed off to provide the children a sensory-friendly environment, arranged the event through nationwide organization Autism Speaks. A local group, Families Advocating Autism Now, spread the word to families in the community.

Children lined up to take photos with Santa before receiving “sensory gifts” from the bearded legend of Christmas.

According to the National Autistic Society, people with autism often have difficulty processing sensory stimuli.

“We have different things like fidget spinners or squishy balls, all kinds of things that would work to help calm the sensory overload,” said Kaileigh Klammes, president of FAAN.

Local Mike Heike brought his four children to the event. His son, Christopher, is autistic, and Heike said the family tries to support him any way they can.

“All of these events that (Bayshore Mall) puts on are awesome,” Heike said. “As a community, we really appreciate it.”

The mall puts on similar events directed at special needs children for other seasonal holidays. Easter Sunday is next on the calendar.

“It’s definitely the most rewarding part of my job to coordinate things like this,” said Jennifer Chierici of Brookfield Properties, the mall’s corporate ownership. “It’s rewarding to see a kid who’s nervous see Santa and get acclimated in an environment that’s sensory-friendly.”

In addition to opening the mall to the registered families before regular business hours, organizers turned off the speaker music. FAAN set up a coloring station for children to relax and be ready to meet and communicate with Santa.

It’s all part of relieving families of the everyday obstacles they otherwise face, Chierici said.

“To see a child who is really against being in this situation be able to take their time and grow comfortable enough to sit on Santa’s lap and for their families to get a good picture so they can have those holiday memories documented is really cool,” she added.

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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