After her son Brayden was diagnosed with autism at age three, Erin Deely assumed there were some experiences that just might not be in the cards for her family. "I thought we would never get those holiday pictures with him because it's something he can't handle – the noise, and the pressure. He gets anxious if you ask him to smile, it's all too much for him," Erin told PEOPLE.
But on November 22, Erin decided to give it a try and brought Brayden to a special Caring Santa event at SouthPark mall in Charlotte, North Carolina. Caring Santa is a program that provides special needs families with their own unique opportunity to visit and take photos with Santa.
The result was incredible.
Brayden was feeling shy as he slowly inched his way toward Santa's chair. Rather than wait to see if Brayden might come to his lap, this caring Santa got right on the ground with him and started playing with Brayden and his toys.
"Oh my gosh, to be able to do something that other families do...normally a lot of things are harder for us as a family and we got to do the same tradition as everyone else, we just do it on the floor," Erin said.
Autism Speaks is thrilled to be partnering with Simon Property Group, Inc. and the Noerr Programs Corporation on their Caring Santa program, in association with AbilityPath! Caring Santa is an opportunity to provide special needs families with a more controlled and welcoming environment to visit Noerr’s Santa Photo Experience! Families can sign up for appointments in advance to avoid wait time, and all appointments take place before the mall opens, so they can avoid the chaos of holiday shopping.
"The whole staff (Santa included) was overly accommodating for all of our kids, really trying to get the best picture and create the best experience possible, regardless of how much time or patience was needed to do so," said Maeghan Pawley, Autism Speaks Community Outreach Manager in the Southeast region, who took the photo.
Since Autism Speaks posted this photo on Tuesday, December 1, the response has been amazing. In addition to PEOPLE, Brayden and Santa's story has been shared by NBC Charlotte, Fox29, ABCnews.com, USAToday.com, Huffingtonpost.co.uk, Yahoo.com, FoxNews.com, Inside Edition, Popsugar.com, Womansday.com, FOX46 and many others.
The Deely family was also featured on BuzzFeed here.