For most children in the UK, visiting Santa Claus in his grotto before Christmas is an exciting prospect, but for some children this is not the case.

For thousands of children diagnosed with Autism and learning disabilities, visiting a busy grotto with massive crowds, queues and loud noises can be distressing, making it hard for them to enjoy the magic of Christmas. 

The Liberty Shopping Centre in Romford, Essex, is launching a unique Santa’s Grotto this year, giving children with learning disabilities and autism the chance to meet Santa in a calming sensory room based in the shopping centre. 

This initiative has been launched today (12th November) in conjunction with Purple Tuesday, a nationwide retail initiative created two years ago to support and strengthen the customer shopping experience for disabled people by promoting accessible facilities. 

Every Wednesday in the centre, starting from 20th November to 18th December between 4pm-5pm, there will be an opportunity for families to meet an Autism-friendly trained Santa. 

Hosted by The Liberty Shopping Centre and autism charity, Sycamore Trust, ‘Sensory Santa’ will be held in a bespoke sensory room in the centre, a calming space with no loud music or crowds of people. 

‘Sensory Santa’ this year follows the centres ‘calm lane’ which was launched last Christmas; a 260-metre path leading to The Sycamore Trust hub where families with autistic children and autistic shoppers meet and receive local support.  This year the centre will not only host the Sensory Santa Grotto, they will also offer autism-friendly ear defenders for both children and adults to help them enjoy the festive experience whilst shopping.

Jonathan Poole, Centre Manager at The Liberty, said: “Christmas can be a hectic time of year and in busy public spaces, such as shopping centres, it can be an extremely stressful experience for people with autism or learning disabilities. Last year the Calm Lane was introduced to help our festive shoppers take their time around the centre, and it was so successful we kept it in place all year round.

“We work closely with The Sycamore Trust to nurture an environment that gives visitors with learning difficulties and local families with Autistic children a supportive shopping experience. We are proud to introduce our Sensory Santa this year, to help even more local families enjoy our Christmas experience.”

The Liberty is encouraging donations in return for a visit to Sensory Santa. All donations will be in support of The Sycamore Trust and The Liberty’s charities of the year, Haven House Children’s Hospice and Cancer Research UK.

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