‘Quiet Santa’ helps children with special needs enjoy the holidays

OREM, Utah  – Taking a photo with Santa is a popular holiday tradition. But for children with special needs, it could lead to a meltdown. That’s why University Place in Orem is creating a calmer atmosphere.

When Caitlyn Wall’s 5-year-old daughter Abbey experiences sensory overload, she has a meltdown.

“Abbey has ADHD and some sensory issues and a mood disorder. Noise and crowds are big triggers for her,” Wall said.

Abbey has steered clear of Santa since she was a baby.

“Last week's visit with Santa was not good. She didn't even go up to him,” said Caitlyn Wall, Abbey’s mother.

Today, she got some quiet one-on-one time with the big guy, thanks to University Place and Utah Autism Academy. They set up a sensory-friendly environment, away from the noisy mall crowd.

“Instead of just a really, quick fast-paced photo op, it’s more of just a play time one on one structure,” said Nichelle Jensen, University Place event planner.

Santa (who also goes by the name Eric Thorkelson) has gone through specialized training with Utah Autism Academy to ensure each child feels comfortable.

“They told me that you can't be too forward with them. You can't be too loud, and so that's why I'm the quiet Santa. It's better than just having the kids line up and sit on my knee and tell me what they want for Christmas. I get to spend time with them,” Thorkelson said.

Families can sign up for the free 15-minute sessions. They take place two hours before the mall opens, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

“They can do their own pictures and that kind of gives them the freedom to get as close as they want to their own kids. They can bring grandma and grandpa, whoever they want to bring,” said Jensen.

Abbey's mom is grateful Santa and Abbey hit it off right away.

“This is really gonna be a special memory for her and I hope they keep doing it so we can come back every year,” said Wall.

To make a booking, click here: https://www.universityplaceorem.com/events/quiet-santa/