Sensory Santa offers a fun, quieting event in Little Rock

Santa Claus visits with Selah Kumwenda, 3, during the Sensory Santa event Sunday at the Park Plaza mall in Little Rock..(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Santa Claus visits with Selah Kumwenda, 3, during the Sensory Santa event Sunday at the Park Plaza mall in Little Rock..(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

It's 11:30 a.m. Sunday and Park Plaza in midtown Little Rock is nearly empty.

The multistory structure, which won't fully open until noon, is relatively quiet.

And that's exactly how Ashely Kumwenda, 26, of Conway, wants it.

It's an atmosphere without too many opportunities for sensory overload for her daughter, Selah.

Selah, 3, is about a dozen feet away from her mother, dancing hand-in-hand with Santa Claus as her favorite song, "Head, shoulders, knees and toes," plays on a nearby phone.

Unlike a typical mall Santa event, this one -- put on by Park Plaza and the Independent Case Management (ICM) -- was specifically for children who have sensory processing differences, autism and developmental disabilities.

Of 15 families that signed up for quiet time with Santa, Kumwenda and Selah are the last group to visit with and have their picture taken with Santa.

Selah was diagnosed with autism when she was 2, even though Kumwenda felt "something was just kind of off" about her daughter long before that.

A first-time mother, she gave birth to Selah in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, a trial in and of itself.

"All I had was like social media to kind of show me what parenting was like," Kumwenda said. "I was away from family. My ex-husband was in the military. So we were kind of secluded."

Selah was about 8 months old when Kumwenda noticed that she "just didn't get prolonged eye contact with her.

"She didn't really like gravitate toward toys (aimed at) around her age and up. She was fascinated with lights. And so I just knew something was off. They really don't want to diagnose that young, 8 months. So she was kind of monitored by a behavioral team for a good bit."

This isn't the first time she's taken Selah to see a Sensory Santa Claus.

However, the first time, she didn't think Selah was old enough or ready for the experience.

Earlier this year, in fact, the mother and daughter went to a pumpkin patch during normal hours when the general public was there.

"It was chaotic. She gets overstimulated very easily with noise," Kumwenda said. "So something like this is pretty, pretty awesome because we get to experience things that other kids get to do."

"It's nice for me, too, because I get to experience those things with my kiddo without me getting stressed."

Independent Case Management, 1525 Merrill Drive in Little Rock, has been providing home and community-based support to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1988.

They have 300 customers across the state, including 100 children with autism who receive at-home applied behavioral analysis therapy, which focuses on positive reinforcement, communication and repetitive behaviors.

Sunday at Park Plaza, the company was represented by three employees: Dottie Lou Benedetti, director of quality improvement; Jillian Tomagos, director of autism development; and Chloe Charton, a community support manager.

Tomagos and Charton sat behind a table filled with sensory toys, including bottles full of bubbles, puzzles, fidget bracelets and fidget tubes.

"I don't think we've ever done Sensory Santa before," said Tomagos, who has been with the company for three years. "But it's a very awesome event. So we definitely want to continue this for future years."

There are multiple reasons why a visit to Sensory Santa is beneficial to someone like Selah.

Going to a normal Santa would be "so overwhelming" to someone with autism her age, said Charton, who primarily works with adults.

"Overwhelming for them because it's a new place, bright lights, everyone is very busy. There's a ton of other children -- all of them are crying. It just becomes a total loss."

Thankfully, that's not the case today for Kumwenda and Selah.

In her first year of being a mother to a child officially diagnosed with autism, Kumwenda has learned to "take it day-by-day. You're gonna have your highs and lows," she said, and you need "to celebrate the little things and the big things."

And a successful visit with Santa Claus is "a big day."

"Especially the smiles I'm seeing her have. She's having fun."