U of M hosts special 'Sensory Santa' event to help autism research

With a growing number of children on the autism spectrum, the University of Minnesota is recognizing a demand for sensory-friendly Santas.

There are several events in malls around the Twin Cities metro area which take place often before malls open to the general public. For the first time, researchers at the U of M are hosting an event they hope will help more people participate in an important study to pinpoint the cause of autism.

Jamie Krier is 9 years old, loves breaking the ice with his sister and also happens to be on the autism spectrum.

“He doesn’t have the behavior response to sensory issues that some kids do,” said Amy Krier, Jamie’s mother.

This time of year, going to see Santa can  be overwhelming, causing Jamie to withdraw and get anxiety.

“Standing in line at the mall, hundreds of kids, and you get three minutes to get everything together and be able to talk to Santa,” Amy Krier said. “It just gets to be a lot.”

Sunday, the Kriers tried something different. They attended the first sensory Santa event hosted by U of M Medical School researchers.

“It was actually a lot more quiet than the mall,” said Jamie Krier of the experience.

“Life wasn’t on a timer for once. He went at his speed,” said Matt Krier, Jamie’s father. “And that was a very nice change of pace.”

While the kids shared their wish lists, researchers have their own, too. They are encouraging visitors to participate in a nationwide spark study, which has been underway since 2016.

The study has a goal of collecting 50,000 saliva samples from people on the autism spectrum along with their parents or siblings when possible, in order to someday pinpoint the genetic cause.

“The goal is to really accelerate what we can understand about the genetic underpinnings of autism,” said Amy Esler, a PhD at the U of M’s Center for Neurobehavorial Development. “We’ve known for a long time that autism is genetic, but finding the exact genetics and genetic combinations is more challenging because there is such a diverse array of characteristics of what we see in autism.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, in parts of Hennepin and Ramsey County, one in 42 children has autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Esler points out many parents have enrolled in the Spark program, but not nearly as many have completed the saliva sample.

“We want research participation to be fun and enjoyable,” Esler said. “We want to recognize what families need and what we can give back to them too, because we really appreciate what they do for us.”

Even though participating in the study is not required to meet Santa, the entire Krier family was happy to do both.

“Whether or not it helps him or not, I don’t want to say it’s irrelevant, but as long as it helps someone that’s important to us,” Amy Krier said.

The next event will take place Dec. 15 from noon to 4 p.m. at 717 Delaware St. SE, Minneapolis. To RSVP visit bit.ly/santa-spark. You can find more information about Spark for Autism on its web page.