The bright lights, loud music and long lines can often keep autistic kids from engaging in a holiday ritual many children enjoy: an annual visit with Santa.

So one mall opened early last Sunday morning for some low-key “sensitive Santa” time.

The Northtown Mall, in Blaine, Minnesota, dimmed the lights and lowered the music volume to make autistic children more comfortable, and forms filled out by parents in advance gave Sensitive Santa insight on the kids’ wish lists. This year, more than 50 kids of all ages attended the event.

Northtown Marketing Director Linda Sell said, “It’s something very small on our end but it means so much to families. It’s heartwarming to see the joy in the kids’ faces, and in the parents.”

Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a neurologist specializing in autism at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, said parents want their children to have the same opportunities as their peers.

“A visit with Santa is one of those things you expect to happen,” he said. “This is our culture recognizing that if the kids can’t fit into the template, the template has to fit the kids.”

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