HURST — Northeast Mall opened its doors two hours early Sunday for a special holiday outing.
The goal was to create an environment to support the sensory, physical, and developmental needs of a special group of children.
One of the guests was 10-year-old Madison.
Her behavior, although typical, isn't well-received in public. The stomping, the grunts, and the desire to be left alone is her form of communication. She has autism and Down syndrome.
"We get people that stare at us all the time that don't understand," said her mother, Michele Morer. That makes most holiday traditions — like taking a photo with Santa — a burden, she said.
It also explains why until this day, Madison never got that photo with jolly old St. Nick.
But thanks to a joint partnership between AbilityPath.org, a national online resource hub and special needs community and the Noerr Programs, Northeast Mall opened a full two hours early on Sunday. Management roped off its center court and laid out the red carpet.
With no outsiders to interfere, these kids with special needs could be themselves.
"It's definitely pulled at the heart strings," said Northeast Mall spokeswoman Holly Conner.
Scott and Staci McClure's children, who are both autistic, almost broke down when they eyed the tinsel, the bright lights and the camera's flash.
But moments later, with photos in hand documenting the experience once considered too stressful, Scott McClure said it offered sweet memories.
"So much of your life these days is not typical, so its nice to have typical experiences, definitely," he said.
And remember Madison? She seemed terrified at first, but after seeing her picture for the first time, she squealed with delight, grew calmer, and enjoyed the holiday magic for the first time ever.
"This is very special to us", her mom said.
Only four shopping malls across the country offered the "Caring Santa" program on Sunday, and because of its success, Northeast Mall is bringing it back for Easter and Christmas next year.