Columbia Mall hosts sensory friendly Santa experience

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COLUMBIA - Santa Claus came to town a little early this year for some children in mid-Missouri on Sunday.

Photos with Santa are a tradition around Christmas time but for some children with special needs, the experience can be overwhelming.

Before the Columbia Mall opened to the public on Sunday morning, families came to meet the big man in a sensory friendly setting. There are no bright lights, music or crowds.

For some kids like 2-year-old Iliana Schneider, it was the first time they met the big man.

"You know for autistic kids that can be something of an issue dealing with crowds and dealing with the hustle and bustle, the lines and stuff," her father, Todd Schneider, said. "Something like this where it is very relaxed and there is not a ton of people here yet. We were able to get right in and see him as soon as we got here. It really makes a difference."

The Schneider family used to go see Santa at Bass Pro Shop but stopped after it became difficult for their 8-year-old son Joshua to deal with the crowds.

"They put on a good thing and it was great but just the amount of people packed together and the amount of time we would have to wait to get through the line, it really became a struggle," his father said.

Schneider said it's hard to overstate how much being able to meet Santa meant to his family.

"It really does give them a chance to feel normal and do activities they otherwise probably wouldn't be able to handle," he said. "The memories for them to have and those kinds of things last a life time."

This is the first year the event was held but organizers said they are hoping to make it an annual event.