Creating a festive change for children with autism

Christmas first! Santa opens an autism-friendly grotto
Christmas first! Santa opens an autism-friendly grotto

Families with autistic children will be able to experience the magic of Christmas at special autistic-friendly Santa grottos across the UK - and there’s one right here on the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard at Mead Open Farm.

The idea came from mum Jo-Ann D’Costa-Manuel who understands the problem first hand through her seven-year-old son who was diagnosed with the condition when he was two.

She went to a grotto run by Magenta Star last year and told one of the staff members her son was struggling with queueing. Jo-Ann was overwhelmed by the support she received and has since worked with the company to roll out autism-friendly versions nationwide.

They feature an early quiet hour, no queuing, special toys and gifts and awareness training for all staff, including Santa and his Elves.

Mxagenta Star MD Alison Berneye said: “We’ve seen an increasing number of autistic children visiting our grottos in recent years.

“Whenever possible we help to make the child’s visit as magical as possible and we understand an excited crowd waiting to see Father Christmas can be overwhelming.

“We train our staff to do everything possible to help disadvantaged children of all kinds and this is a perfect ending to an incredible year, giving all the families we care so much about a much needed Christmas treat.

“They no longer have to feel alone or isolated – people do understand and awareness is spreading.”

Jo-Ann founded Autism Parent Empower and launched it in Parliament in March. She has had a busy year supporting families through training programs, awareness videos, Flashmobs and events.

She said: “Christmas can sometimes provide a sensory overload for our children.

“With the festive season rush and lack of autism awareness many families feel restricted to their homes, apprehensive to step out of the door. But the magic of Christmas should be enjoyed by everyone, including parents and siblings of children with autism.”

> The Mead Open Farm grotto is open from 10.20am to 5pm daily except Christmas Eve when it closes ar 3pm. It’s wise to book online - go to