When Kerry Magro was six years old, he had his first terrible experience with a visit to Santa Claus. Things were going all right at first, despite the loud and very stimulating mall environment. But then the flash of the camera was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and things began to spiral out of control. Magro hopped off Santa’s lap, covered his ears, and began spinning in circles. That was his first and last visit with Santa.
One of the worst things about the experience was that Magro had witnessed other children going through the same process and dealing with it just fine. He thought he’d let himself and Santa down. He felt different and didn’t know what was wrong with him. Now that he’s grown up, Magro doesn’t want any child to experience that lonely and frustrated feeling he felt so many years ago.
“It was sad for me,” the now 30-year-old Magro recalls. “I thought, why are those other kids able to do this, and not me? I didn’t have any friends, and I was really trying to find that connection.”
And so Magro became a Santa Claus. A Santa Claus with autism who hosts special 3-minute sessions for children with autism, sensory issues, and other special needs. He strives to make every child feel comfortable, whether that involves putting the child on his lap or maintaining some distance. For the last five years, he’s met each child where he or she needs him to be, even if that’s on the floor.
“There’s a lot of joy,” said Magro. “It’s a labor of love.”
Magro chooses quiet locations to meet with his fans, sometimes even going to their homes. He makes special preparations for his visitors, such as turning down the lights and music, and he always makes the experience an authentic one, even enlisting the help of friends, occupational therapists, and special education teachers to be his elves.
Sara, a 10-year-old girl with nonverbal autism, has been visiting her favorite Santa, Magro, for five years. Her father, Brian Calligy, has observed that Magro has a special bond with Sara and seems to understand what she’s trying to communicate. When he said, “Ho ho ho,” and Sara touched his mouth, he knew she wanted him to do it again.
“She was trying her best, in her own way, to interact, and he is catching all those cues. It was just natural,” said Calligy. “She was so excited; she’s jumping up and down, and he’s jumping up and down with her. She was so happy. She had a smile from ear to ear.”
Magro himself was nonverbal until he was about three years old, and he understands what it’s like to not be able to communicate with the outside world. He is one of many sensory-friendly Santas available to see special needs kids these days, but he’s one of just a few, if not the only one, who actually has autism himself. This extra layer of connection between him and children with autism is what really seems to bring a sort of magic to the experience.
“As a parent, seeing what he’s doing not only for my daughter but for all the kids who are there, its special,” said Calligy. “Seeing a person with autism and the heights he is reaching, and he still is making time to come and do this — well, we look forward to it every year.”
Magro is also a speaker, activist, and educator who works to help make the world a more understanding and accepting place for people with autism. Share his story to inspire others!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?