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Mall Santa Finds Way to Bond with Boy with Autism

The Short of It

A North Carolina mall Santa lies down on the floor to make a boy who has autism feel more comfortable visiting ol' Saint Nick.

The Lowdown

Brayden Deely was diagnosed with autism at around age 3, and getting him to take holiday pics with Santa has gotten harder and harder every year.

"The noise and the pressure. He gets anxious if you ask him to smile; it's all too much for him," Brayden's mom Erin told People.

But then Erin heard about the Caring Santa program, which is organized by Autism Speaks and is held at malls across the country. The program provides a controlled environment so meeting Santa can become a calmer, more stress-free experience for families.

"We know for some kids with autism, the idea of going into a mall and an environment they're not used to has a lot of sensory challenges," said Lisa Goring of Autism Speaks.

Goring says the high-pitched noises, overhead lights and the idea of being asked to sit on a stranger's lap can be terrifying for many young children, and those fears are heightened for children unable to communicate verbally.

Erin brought Brayden, now 6, to a local mall after closing time to meet Santa.

"They let you take all the time you need to let him warm up to Santa," she told Today Parents. "Brayden started out far away. He knew who Santa was, but he was shy."

So Santa took matters into his own hands, breaking out a musical snow globe and placing it by Brayden on the floor. The boy crawled over and started playing with it. And then, to the surprise of everyone, Santa got down on the floor and joined him.

"He got down on his stomach and just started playing with him," Erin told Today. "They didn't even talk to each other, really, they just bonded and played, and Brayden started to be really excited and started looking at him and smiling."

The Upshot

The Caring Santa program has locations in malls at 120 cities. And according to Goring, the Santas receive special training and guidance to learn better ways to connect and accommodate children with autism.

"It's a great way for families to experience a holiday tradition," Goring said.

Erin couldn't agree more. "I thought we would never get those holiday pictures," she said. "I just want to hug this man. He's so wonderful!"

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