Leila, 4, wanted to ask Santa for pink Legos this Christmas. But trying to get the little girl, who has autism, to sit on Santa's lap at the mall had proved difficult in years past.

Early Saturday morning, before White Marsh Mall had formally opened for the day, Leila and her mother, Heidi Oumarou, finally got a chance to interact with Santa in a setting specifically designed for children with special needs.

The lights were dimmed, the music off and the crowds absent. Leila, wearing a Hello Kitty hat, sat on her mother's lap next to Santa and grinned as the camera flashed.

Tell Santa what you want, Oumarou prompted. "Legos!" Leila exclaimed.

"We weren't even going to come see Santa because we did it once and it was a disaster," said Oumarou, of Baltimore. She heard about the event, known as "sensory friendly Santa" from a flier at her daughter's special-education program.

Oumarou said that Leila usually hates having her picture taken, so having a nice shot of her with Santa was special.

"It doesn't happen that often," she said.

White Marsh Mall started the special Santa event last year after an autism group requested it, and it also has a sensory friendly Easter Bunny in the springtime, said Annie Wildasin, the mall's marketing manager. The mall puts the word out in a few places, but doesn't go overboard on marketing to allow the event to remain small.

As many as 1 in 88 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder, the Centers for Disease Control estimates, which can affect how they socialize, communicate and learn.

The lights, crowds and lines can be a nightmare and distraction for children with autism or other conditions. Families also get to spend more time with Santa.

"We don't rush them through with Santa," Wildasin said.

Most of the massive Christmas displays in the center of the mall were turned off, as were the monitors. Families got a coupon for one free picture from the set of photos taken.

Ethan Dahlberg's daughter Hana, 3, ran back to see Santa again after her first time. She gave him a high-five. He gave her a candy cane.

"That's the biggest thing, that we get to take our time," Dahlberg said.

The mall's Santa, who would only give his name as Saint Nicholas, said he gets a lot of requests for puppies, kittens and gerbils. "I have to remind them, 'Santa is a toy maker,'" he said.

"I feel magical having the kids right here with me," he said, adding that it also "tears at my insides" to interact with the special-needs children.

"It brings you back to reality – this is what Christmas is about," he said.

Shannan Harzarik rolled strollers carrying Sean, 3, and Clara, 6, softly and quietly up to Santa.

"Do you want go see him?" she asked Clara, picking her up. The girl smiled.

Sean and Clara, bedecked on Saturday in comfy onesies, have a rare genetic disorder that affects their development, their mother said. Doctors have been unable to find a source, and the children have suffered in the past from seizures.

"Come here, angel," Santa said to Clara, and the two children settled on his lap. Harzarik took the children to sensory friendly Santa last year, too.

"It's very low key, it's not stressful," said Harzarik, of Essex. "This is the second year they haven't cried. We already have a lot on our plates to begin with, so this helps."

cwells@baltsun.com

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