VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Most children tend to be eager to meet Santa Claus, who's known to give children toys for Christmas. For children with autism, that encounter may be one filled with trepidation.
"Kids with autism are so very special,” Marlin Patrick said.
Patrick should know because he acts as Santa Claus each year for Christmas functions in his Santa costume.
"All they have is love in their heart,” Patrick said. “They want to talk to people; they want to hug people."
For Aimee Darby’s daughter, Eliza, she says, "When Eliza met Santa for the first time, I did not know how she was going to react."
But to Darby’s surprise, Eliza, who had autism, loved the jolly red giant.
"She was feeling his beard, she was hugging him,” Darby said.
Darby is the founder and president of the Eliza Hope Foundation, a non-profit that helps children with autism. She and Patrick have worked together for the last few years, making sure children with autism can happily celebrate with Santa.
Each year, Darby hosts a holiday event where the children they help can spend time with Santa Claus. They get to speak with Santa and get their pictures taken.
"Some are scared, some are excited - it really depends,” Darby explained.
When Patrick plays the role of Santa, he knows how to comfort them.
“I talk to them, and ask them their name, what they do,” Patrick said, “and what kind of toys they play with?”
"Whatever your child is most comfortable with,” Darby explained, “let's just go with it and it'll be okay."
The Eliza Hope Foundation is hosting Patrick as Santa Claus on Tuesday night. It is for the foundation’s “Sensory-Friendly Santa Experience.”
The event is $25, and parents need to sign up ahead of time. It includes your child meeting Santa, getting their picture taken and cookies and hot chocolate. More information and to sign can be found here.
The Foundation requires visitors to wear face masks, social distance and to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines.