12/02/2013 01:00 EST | Updated 01/31/2014 05:59 EST

Silent Santa programs cater to children with autism

The beginning of December marks the unofficial launch of mall Santa season, and for many families it's an essential, though often chaotic, part of the holidays.

But for parents of kids with special needs, a trip to a busy, noisy mall isn't always at the top of their to-do list.

Vicki Harvey is autism outreach coordinator with Autism Nova Scotia as well as a mall Santa trainer. She's part of a program that's setting aside appointment times for children with autism to visit Santa before the mall opens.

"We'll often see kids come into a large area, where there's lots of sound happening and they're so overwhelmed that their hands are over their ears and they can't focus and they want to leave the experience," Harvey explains.

But when the kids come in for the Silent Santa program, it's an entirely different experience, Halifax Shopping Centre marketing director Stephanie Guilfoyle says.

"We have the opportunity to see the shopping centre when it's not open and when the lights are down," she says. "There are Christmas lights and quiet music, it's actually quite relaxing. So that's what we're hoping will come across because these children do have special needs that we need to address."

Even Saint Nick and the elves behave differently during the Silent Santa program. They don't expect the kids to get on Santa's lap and staff won't make eye contact with the children unless it's appropriate to do so.

Families also arrive in small groups so they're not competing with hordes of rambunctious children.

Tracey Avery has twin 13 year olds with autism, Kyle and Brandon. For her boys, wait times were a discouragement.

"Sometimes you have to wait ... it might be a long time and then Kyle will want to know exactly how long, so it's really hard to put a time on something like that," she says. The Silent Santa program is "ideal for us," she adds. "We haven't gone to a mall to see Santa since the boys were probably two."

But now, because Avery knows exactly what to expect, she can better prepare her children for their visit. She says that's also something many people with autism crave — predictability.

"They'll both be really excited and I'll finally get a picture of them with Santa and it'll be something that they can talk about the whole Christmas season."

Over the past couple of years, Silent Santa programs have been popping up all over North America, and most major centres in Canada now have at least one participating mall.