Santa and his elves given autism awareness training by Merseyside charity

Autism Together has provided training for Dobbies Garden Centres across the UK to create safe ‘Quiet Grotto’ sessions.

A Dobbies Santa. Image: Stewart AttwoodA Dobbies Santa. Image: Stewart Attwood
A Dobbies Santa. Image: Stewart Attwood

Santa and his elves across the UK have been given autism awareness training by a Liverpool-based charity to help even more children enjoy their Christmas experience.

Autism Together joined forces with Dobbies Garden Centre to help provide autism-friendly ‘Quiet Grotto’ sessions in 50 UK stores.

Dobbies staff were given access to specific training from the charity.

On Friday, all 50 grottos involved in the scheme held quiet sessions which had the music turned off, twinkling lights removed or switched off and a customers had a choice of having gifts wrapped or not.

Customers were also emailed a photo of the grotto before visiting so they could prepare their children and did not have to queue on arrival.

Reaction to the scheme

Sarah Murray, Partnership and Events Manager at Dobbies, said: “For our Quiet Grotto offering this year, we have worked in partnership with Autism Together.

“This has enabled us to host these events at a greater number of stores and they’ve been well received across the country.

“Meeting Santa is a memorable experience for children of all ages, and we wanted to ensure our grotto offering accommodated as many children as possible.

“Children with autism and other sensory needs were able to visit Santa in a relaxed environment where the sound and visual elements were specifically adapted to minimise anxiety.”

Autism Together provides support to people with autism, offering a wide range of residential services, supported living, day services and community support from a base in Wirral.

Michelle Walklett, head of Autism Together’s Autism Training and Advisory Service, said: “We were delighted to have worked with Dobbies Garden Centres to help make their Quiet Grotto sessions more autism-friendly this Christmas.

“Our award-winning Autism Training and Advisory Service were able to help the company enhance their Grotto experience for visitors with autism and other sensory needs in 50 of their stores across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“Through this partnership, we delivered autism awareness training for Santa and all his elves and helpers in time for the festive season.

“We were also able to make recommendations on the sort of reasonable adjustments that would ensure grottos were more accessible to autistic children and families at Christmas.”

She added that it was important businesses continued to work towards making their events more accessible to people with autism and other sensory needs.

Top tips for an autism-friendly Christmas

Autism Together has published a list of tips for families who may have someone on the spectrum.

  • Have a designated place to relax and retreat, especially if you plan to have guests.
  • Be clear about when friends and family may visit. Write up a schedule and stick it on the fridge or somewhere it is easily accessible.
  • Use advent calendars to your advantage – a countdown can be really beneficial to make people aware of upcoming events
  • Some families opt for a one-day Christmas, when decorations and lights are put up and taken down on the same day.
  • Alternatively, how about decorating a designated ‘Christmas room’ to limit the impact of changes to other rooms in the house.
  • Look at the world through the eyes of your loved one – what aspects of Christmas do they enjoy? There are no rules – Christmas can be whatever works for you and your family.
  • Have some Christmas-free time away from the festivities – this can be helpful to reduce anxiety. A quiet stroll in the park or feeding the ducks could help, if this is what you normally do to relax.
  • Father Christmas can cause anxiety. Prepare your loved one by showing them pictures, or perhaps Father Christmas could drop off presents at a family member’s house instead.
  • Find out about local events, such as autism-friendly grottos and pantomimes. Decide which events your loved one would enjoy and book in advance.
  • Christmas dinners can be individual, so stick to what you know will be popular. Who says it has to be roast turkey?

For more information visit the Autism Together website.

What is autism?

Autism Together describes autism as a lifelong developmental condition that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people.

It also affects how they make sense of the world around them. It is a lifelong spectrum condition that is generally identified in early childhood, but can also be identified and diagnosed in adulthood.

People with autism often need extra support but are able to have a happy and fulfilling life, according to the charity.

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