The North East Autism Society (NEAS) teamed up with the flagship Metrocentre to deliver the training to staff who will be working around Santa’s grotto this Christmas.

The training coincided with the UK’s first Purple Tuesday, which aims to making shopping centres more accessible to people with disabilities.

The advice to Santa, his elves, and the marketing team looking after the grotto included:

  • Remembering that the element of surprise can be difficult for those with autism and other neurodiverse conditions, so some children may not want to receive a present.
  • Sudden noises need to be toned down ­– including Santa’s famous “Ho-ho-ho”.
  • Flashing lights need to be avoided so Santa’s grotto won’t be dimly lit.
  • Appreciating that queueing can be challenging for autistic youngsters.

The training was delivered by Kerrie Highcock, Family Development Manager for NEAS, who told the staff: “This is really exciting because you are paving the way and making a huge difference to families who may not have been able to enjoy a visit to Santa’s grotto before.”

Kerrie added:

Christmas should be exciting for all children – and that includes those with autism. We want families affected by autism to experience the magic without it being traumatic and to be working so positively with something as iconic as the Metrocentre sends a really important message.

The intu Metrocentre has this year introduced “Relaxed Santa” experiences between 10am and 12 noon every Sunday in the run up to Christmas, and they have already proved to be hugely popular. During those sessions, Santa has also been trained in British Sign Language.

Families affected by autism can download and fill in a specially-designed “Santa Pass” to give Metrocentre staff advance information about children’s individual needs and anxieties before they visit the grotto.

Lots of visual aids, including footsteps on the floor leading to the grotto, will also be used to help families understand the process of visiting the grotto.

In November 2017, NEAS set up the country’s first Autism and Neurodiversity Academy (ANDA), aimed at delivering training to a host of organisations, including several shopping centres.

Gavin Prior, regional director at into Metrocentre said:

We’re delighted to be working with the North East Autism Society ahead of our Christmas grotto opening this weekend. By introducing specialist training to our elves and staff we can support those with autism spectrum conditions and little ones who require British Sign Language sessions, so families can enjoy a relaxed meeting with Santa. In his grotto.