CHICAGO — Hours before Woodfield Mall opened on a recent Sunday morning, before workers turned on the holiday lights and the halls filled with shoppers, 4-year-old Liam Munnelly’s parents placed him on Santa’s lap.

Though Liam couldn’t talk back, Santa spoke to him, pointing at the decorations overhead. The little boy with the blue-rimmed glasses and red bow tie poked Santa’s belly and touched his beard, then smiled briefly at the camera before hurrying back to his dad.

Liam was born premature, has cerebral palsy, and likely doesn’t know who Santa is, said his mom, Erica Munnelly. But “it’s important to have the memories, to be able to look back and have the pictures,” she said.

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Liam was Santa’s first visitor that morning at Woodfield Mall’s Caring Santa event, one of more than 375 sensory-friendly Santa events planned at malls and other locations nationwide this year by New Jersey-based Cherry Hill Programs and the advocacy organization Autism Speaks.

Families register in advance to see Santa and the visits take place before malls and stores open, to lessen any anxiety the sounds and sights of the season may bring. At Woodfield, the loud music and “Despicable Me 3” ads on seven screens that typically greet kids on their way to Santa were turned down.

For Liam, lights and sound are not an issue, Erica Munnelly said. “We just need the patience because muscle movements are hard for him.”

Cherry Hill, which provides the Santa experiences in malls throughout the U.S. and Canada, launched its sensory-friendly Santa programming in 2011. It has seen rapid growth recently, partially because of awareness and high demand, said Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer for Autism Speaks, which partnered with Cherry Hill about three years ago. This year, sensory-friendly Santa events are set to be held at more than 300 locations, up from 180 last year.

Autism affects an estimated one in 68 children in the U.S, according to Autism Speaks. One-third of those children are nonverbal, and for most, it will be a lifelong condition. There are many types of autism, and what is distressing for one person with the disorder may not bother another.

“We ask every family, ‘Are the lights OK? Is the sound OK?'” said Heather Lloyd, director of marketing and business development for Woodfield. “There’s already one family that has proactively said they can’t handle the flash.”

During the Woodfield event, each family was given 15 minutes with Santa, and provided with crayons and snacks when they arrived. Some families came in matching outfits; some children wore footed pajamas. Some children hurried through the Ice Palace, something like a giant snow globe lined with TVs, to get to Santa. Others lingered, playing in the fake snow that fell from above.

If a family stayed in one spot, another moved in front of them. If it took time for a child to work up the courage to approach Santa, he or she was not rushed.

“When you have a sensory-sensitive child or a special-needs child, you can’t (rush),” said Mickey Teply of Hoffman Estates, who attended the event with her daughter, son-in-law and their two foster sons. “It’s their time, not your time.”

Teply’s daughter and son-in-law are set to adopt 5-year-old Justin later this month, Teply said. Justin has autism and is nonverbal, and the patience taken with each family at the event makes an otherwise distressing experience enjoyable, Teply said.

Many of the Santas deployed to the sensory-friendly events receive special training on how to interact with children with autism and other special needs, said Ruth Rosenquist, Cherry Hill spokeswoman. “It’s really about letting the child and letting the caregiver take the lead,” she said. “The child will give Santa clues.”

The recent Woodfield event reached capacity with 40 families and another scheduled at the mall on Dec. 3 is full, Lloyd said. The time with Santa is free but photo packages start at $24.99.

For Woodfield, which is preparing for the busiest retail stretch of the year, the event doesn’t really make business sense, said General Manager Kurt Webb. It takes manpower to put on, and most families likely won’t stick around until the stores open to shop, as the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping can be distressing to the children. But the mall has done it for five years.

“Most things we do have motivation behind them to improve business,” he said. “This one is really about the families and the kids.”

If it wasn’t for the sensory-friendly event, it’s likely that none of Dawn and Tim Karlovsky’s four children — they have two sets of twins — would see Santa. Their son Lincoln has autism, and lines, especially those as long as the one to see Santa at a mall, make the 10-year-old anxious. The sights and sounds can be overwhelming, too, Dawn Karlovsky said.

“I’m not going to come and have memories with Santa and not bring him,” she said. “This way, (the kids) could all do it and it’s all a good experience.”

The family, from Fox River Grove, has attended the event for five years, Dawn Karlovsky said. It’s part of the holiday routine, which is helpful to kids with autism, and the routine has become tradition.

Part of that tradition is arranging themselves on the sofa next to Santa and posing for a picture before whispering their Christmas wishes. One of the Karlovsky kids wanted a Hatchimal, one asked for a gift card to GameStop. Lincoln, though, didn’t have any specific requests.

“It’s not even what he wants to ask Santa for,” Dawn Karlovsky said. “It’s just coming.”

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