Story and images by Briana Shepard, ABC News.
Sitting on Santa’s lap to have your photo taken is a long-held Christmas tradition, but for Diego Marraffa waiting in line to see the jolly man in red could be overwhelming.
“I remember quite a few years ago just lining up and the noise, even just little babies crying, affected Diego,” the 10-year-old’s mother Vicky Marraffa said.
“He’s very sensitive to noise and so a lot of things going on around him were too distracting.”
Diego’s autism made the annual photo with Father Christmas at the local shopping centre almost impossible, until he met Santa Ray.
Santa Ray is part of the Sensitive Santa program, a collaboration that began three years ago between Lakeside Joondalup Shopping Centre in Perth’s north and the Autism Association of Western Australia.
The association’s director of therapy and clinical services, Tasha Alach, said the program allowed families to schedule a time with Santa before the centre opened.
“Often one of the biggest challenges for people with autism is the loud, unexpected sounds and bright lights, so being able to come to the shopping centre early in the morning and eliminate all those noises is a really positive opportunity,” she said.
“There’s still a lot of stigma associated with the behaviours that are demonstrated by the kids when they’re in the shopping centre so families feel really, not embarrassed, but uncomfortable and they don’t want to come back again.
“So we are able to build up their confidence and create a community, an environment where they can feel supported and safe.
“The kids can be who they want to be and they’re accepted, and that is really positive for the parents — quite powerful actually.”
That has certainly been the case for Diego and his family.
The annual photo opportunity has become a highlight of the festive season.
“It means everything, it’s amazing, it’s just such a beautiful time,” Mrs Marraffa said.
“It’s a lot less stressful now. We can actually enjoy it as well, whereas before we would be just trying to make sure he was OK.
“He has such a great time now every year when he gets to do this with his sister as well.
“This is what Christmas is about.”
For Santa Ray, it is simply another opportunity to spread some good old-fashioned Christmas cheer.
“The children are the same to me. I see no difference in any of them, we all have different abilities,” he said.
“It’s something that you really can’t feel unless you’re there.
“To be able to meet with these children and actually communicate with them, it’s really terrific.”
The Sensitive Santa program has been so well received it now runs at a number of shopping centres across Perth.