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Sensitive Santa event grows

Ethan Russell, 4, shows Santa what he wants for Christmas at the Sensitive Santa event on Saturday.

SHELLEY ROSSETTER | Times

Ethan Russell, 4, shows Santa what he wants for Christmas at the Sensitive Santa event on Saturday.

TAMPA — Ethan Russell doesn't get many chances to meet Santa Claus.

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As a 4-year-old with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sensory issues, visiting Santa at the mall — with the long lines and loud noises — is out of the question.

So, on Saturday, Ethan got straight to business.

"Mom, can you get the magazine?" he asked as he walked toward the man in the red suit.

Norrine Russell, of Northdale, handed Ethan a tattered toy catalog that had come in the mail weeks ago. Inside, his name was scrawled next to pictures of fire trucks and ambulances.

"I want that," he told Santa as a photographer snapped their photo.

It's a moment made possible thanks to the Lawyer's Autism Awareness Foundation.

In its second year, the Sensitive Santa event for children with autism spectrum disorders has doubled in size, said Luis E. Viera, the organization's co-founder. Held at the Chester H. Ferguson Law Center in Tampa, more than 150 children attended.

"It's obviously a sign that we need more events like this for the kids," Viera said. The event may expand to two Saturdays next year to fill the demand, he said.

Often appearing in early childhood, symptoms and severity of autism disorders vary, and all affect a child's ability to communicate and interact, according to the Mayo Clinic.

To make the event sensory-friendly, long lines and loud music are eliminated. Families sign up for a time slot to meet Santa one-on-one in a private room. A photographer takes as many photos as needed to capture a smile.

And Santa, played by Hillsborough County Circuit Court judges Rex Barbas and Nick Nazaretian, know to take extra time to help the children feel at ease.

Kay Jefferson already has photos of three of her children with Santa. She's only missing one: her 10-year-old autistic son Jalen.

By the time he reaches Santa he's either crying, looking the other way or not willing to get close at all, she said.

But, on Saturday, a smile spread across Jalen's face when Santa handed him a bell.

Jalen turned to look at the camera and Kay Jefferson's wish came true: a Christmas card worthy shot.

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com.

Sensitive Santa event grows 12/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 8:53pm]
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