CHRISTMAS came early for a special group of children from across Tyneside, when Santa added St James’ Park to his fixture list.

The festive visitor made the trip to the Newcastle United ground yesterday (Monday 21 December) to attend a Christmas lunch held specifically for autistic youngsters – and more than 30, aged from three to 22, turned up to welcome him.

Along with the opportunity to meet Santa Claus, they and their families enjoyed a three course lunch and a mini tour of the stadium, arranged by Sodexo Prestige Venues & Events, which manages conferencing and events at St James’ Park.

Among the guests was seven-year-old Kai Nealings, from Fenham, Newcastle, whose mum, Tracey, said: "As a parent with a new diagnosis, I think the Christmas lunch for children with autism has been a fantastic idea.

“I do hope there are many more events like this to come. Kai has really enjoyed himself and in his words he said, Mam, I've had a lovely time and loved getting a present from Santa."

Tracey Nealings with son Kai

The event was the brainchild of Samantha Doyle, mum to six-year-old Freddie, who has autism.

“The idea for the lunch came about because I realised that, due to Freddie’s autism, I’d gradually stopped taking him to the sort of events most children go to at Christmas, said Samantha.

“His reactions to things can be extreme and unpredictable – he couldn’t stand in a queue in a department store to meet Santa Claus, for example and even going out to a restaurant for lunch can be difficult,” she added.

“And, because you can’t see autism, people don’t realise he has the condition; they just think he’s being naughty and badly behaved.

“Then I realised my concerns about what other people might think were stopping Freddie having the sort of fun all children should have, especially at Christmas – and so I decided to organise this special event.”

Kerrie Highcock, Family Development Manager at North East Autism Society said: “It’s been a great success. A lot of families can feel socially isolated and the children do miss out on a lot so it was amazing for Sam and her team to arrange this lunch – it’s really made Christmas special.”

Click here to view all the photos from the event