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MU’s Thompson Center brings holiday magic to kids with autism

By Adrienne Cornwall

Photos by Lizz Cardwell

COLUMBIA, Mo. (December 9, 2014) – For many families, a photo op with Santa is a holiday tradition. But for patients at the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, factors like crowds, lights and lines put the experience out of their reach.

To help bring the holiday magic to more children on Saturday, Santa and his helper made a special visit to the Thompson Center for one-on-one photo sessions with 21 children, including patients at the center and their siblings.

Tara Arnett, of Columbia, had tried to take her son, Logan, 5, to see Santa last year at a local outdoor retailer, but all the sensory stimulation proved too overwhelming.

This year, he shared the experience at the Thompson Center with his younger sister, Reagan, 3.

“We didn’t have any fighting or fussing. It was much more relaxed and on his own terms,” Arnett said. “He warmed up to Santa. He really enjoyed it.”

Children with autism spectrum disorders have, to varying degrees, difficulty with social and communication skills and display restrictive and repetitive behaviors. Often, their symptoms are influenced by even minor disruptions to their sensory environments.

“Whenever he’s on the spot, it’s harder for him,” said Averie Gomel of her son, Roman, 5, who was diagnosed with autism in 2011 after his pediatrician found he had fewer than 10 words at age 2. “I think this went really well.”

Lora Hinkel, whose 12-year-old son, Blake, has autism, volunteered herself as Santa’s helper for the first Thompson Center Santa event last year and again this year. She came as a package deal with her dad, Vince Eversgerd, of Pierron, Ill., who plays Santa for his grandchildren and friends every year.

“I personally know how challenging it is to bring your child with sensory needs to a crowded, loud, overstimulating environment. Those adults never knew how to interact with my son, and it often ended in tears more than smiles,” she said. “It is so wonderful to provide an opportunity for children to get to participate in a normal tradition that other children do, in an environment that is appropriate for their needs.”

As a speech-language pathologist and special educator with Columbia Public Schools, Hinkel brings her professional expertise to communicating with the children during the visits. Her dad’s experience with Blake, along with the Santa suit already in his closet, gives him a passion to provide kids like his grandson with a special holiday experience.

The children also had some things in mind to share with Santa about their wish lists. Roman planned to ask for Scooby-Doo or Bane, one of the Marvel villains. Anything Santa might forget can be saved for next year, when Santa will make a return visit.

“It was a delight to see so many happy faces and help make their holiday season special,” Hinkel said. “I can’t wait for next year!”