Cassidy Dorr used to dread bringing her son to see Santa at the mall. Triston has autism and suffered sensory overload as he waited in the long lines, Christmas music playing, in a cavernous shopping space.

But Saturday, Triston and his two brothers found a different experience at the Holland Center in Excelsior. Santa sat in his own private room. The entire family posed for the pictures. And Santa's kingdom was peanut-free, gluten-free and devoid of irritating scents and sounds.

Such "special needs Santas" are a growing presence in the Twin Cities and nationally, opening the quintessential holiday ritual for children who historically have been left out.

A "virtual Santa," for example, chatted with hospital-bound children on a wide-screen computer at Children's Hospital of Minneapolis last week. A "signing Santa," who can ho ho ho in sign language, entertained deaf children at the Har Mar Mall in Roseville.

Meanwhile a "sensitive Santa" shared stories about Rudolph with children at a special low-lights, low-noise Santa event at the Northtown Mall last Sunday morning.

"The Santa tradition is becoming more accessible, as children with developmental disabilities become more visible in communities and as their parents become better advocates," said Anne Roehl, director of advocacy programs for the Arc, Greater Twin Cities. "And people are starting to recognize they are a valid part of the marketplace."

For parents such as Dorr, it's a chance for all her sons to forge a Christmas tradition in a stress-free setting.

"Triston wants to feel Santa's face, his beard, to examine him a bit," said Dorr, and typical Santas can be taken aback by this. "You get this look from Santa, like, 'I didn't sign up for this!'"

Triston doesn't speak much. But on Saturday, his actions spoke for themselves. After posing for photos with Santa, he rested his head on Santa's chest and said, "Thank you.''

Desegregating Santa?

Most parents take for granted the annual Santa trek -- complete with photo of fidgeting child on Santa's lap. But about 7 percent of Minnesota children have some type of disability, said Margot Imdieke Cross, accessibility counselor at the Minnesota Council on Disabilities.

It can range from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy to developmental delays. Regardless of the label, it can make sitting on a bearded stranger's lap a difficult proposition.

For years, they've either avoided Santa or attended Christmas parties only for kids like them run by social service agencies. It was essentially a segregation of the Santa experience, Roehl said.

But that is changing, thanks to the special Santas and amenities becoming available for all kids. For example, some malls have offered pagers to cut down on the long lines. The Mall of America has an "appointment Santa" who is available only by appointment in a quiet storefront setting.

Northtown Mall in Blaine has been at the forefront of the "sensitive Santa" mall phenomenon. Last Sunday, for example, its doors opened from 8 to 10 a.m. Store lights were dimmed. The loudspeakers that blare holiday jingles were turned off. About 55 children and their parents chatted with Santa and posed for pictures with him.

And Santa came prepared. Parents filled out forms before their children stepped up to the guy so that Santa knew the child's likes and dislikes. If the youngster didn't like to be touched, for example, it was hands off.

Paula Mueller is Northtown's general manager and president of the 600-member Minnesota Shopping Center Association. Northtown adopted the program last year, she said, when its owners -- Glimcher Realty Trust -- launched the program at its 26 malls nationwide.

Mueller sees the trend of accessible Santas going nowhere but up.

"The mall traditionally has been a center for the community: People come for art fairs, Christmas concerts, fitness ..." Mueller said. "We recognize our community is changing."

Virtual Santa

The little tykes at Children's Hospital of Minneapolis talking to Santa online represented another group of kids who often miss out on the Santa experience. Nevaeh Belker, from Champlin, is undergoing chemotherapy and has a weakened immune system, said her mom, Tessa Belker. So last week the 4-year-old, wearing pink pajamas and hooked up to a feeding tube, walked into a family room at the hospital and chatted with the guy at the North Pole.

Sitting on her mother's lap, she shared what she wanted for Christmas ("a princess castle") and smiled when Santa joked about his reindeers liking Cinnabons. But the little girl got tired after about five minutes and returned to her room.

Tessa Belker appreciated the experience.

"It gives them [the children] a good feeling at a time when these kids don't have a lot of good feelings," Belker said. "It takes their minds off everyday life."

Saturday at the Holland Center, about 50 children arrived with their families for a day of decorating gluten-free cookies, hanging out in the gym -- and meeting a Santa who understands them. It's the second year the center has held the event, open to the public, said Kelly Adams, a supervisor at the Holland Center. The response was so overwhelmingly last year, she said, that it is now a holiday tradition.

Sean Bezdicek, one of the parents at the event, is thrilled. The entire event, from the specially trained Santa to the food the kids eat, is perfect for nontraditional kids, he said.

"It's a great peace of mind, knowing that Santa gets it," he said.

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511