A Santa Claus was anything but jolly towards two autistic brothers at a shopping center in Queensland, Australia. It was the first time that 6-year-old Cameron Sleeth, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, and 7-year-old Liam, who’s autistic, had visited Santa and both were looking forward to hearing him say “ho, ho, ho, merry Christmas” and telling him what they would like for Christmas.
Instead, as the News.com.au says, the experience became a “nightmare.” Cameron was wearing a shirt that said “Think before you judge, I have autism.” Here’s what happened, according to their mother, Tammy Sleeth (I’m quoting the exchange in full because, unfortunately, this Santa Claus said several not-so-nice things):
“The boys went up to Santa, my six-year-old was so excited to see Santa and he was doing a little dance in front of Santa, I thought it was cute, he was happy,” she said.
“Then Santa looked at Cameron’s shirt and looked at me and said ‘has he had his medication tonight?’ and I said ‘excuse me?’. I was just disgusted.”…
“They started saying what they wanted and then about two or three seconds later he said to them ‘what about a jail cell?’,” she said.
“After he said that I thought I didn’t hear right and then he said it again, ‘do you want a jail cell?’
“My six-year-old responded, ‘jail cell’ and I was mortified, I thought how dare you, he’s not playing up, he’s not being naughty.”
Cameron still gave Santa a hug. Their mother was in tears after this — “how dare he insinuate my child needs to be institutionalized,” she said — and says she doesn’t want her sons to visit Santa again.
The man who was working as Santa that day is no longer employed at the Logan Hyperdome, where the incident happened. The shopping center says that this really bad Santa is being investigated and that they have sent a box of toys to the Sleeths.
The Daily Mail has a photo of Billy Bob Thornton playing such a character in the 2003 movie: What’s funny in theaters can be distinctly unpleasant in real life, it goes without saying.
I think it’s still likely that both boys were aware of the highly antagonistic sentiments directed towards them by the man in the red suit; who knows how it might affect their associations of the holidays. Regardless of who that Santa’s words were directed to, telling a child they should request a “jail cell” and asking their mother if they had taken their medication shows how deeply some very incorrect and harmful stereotypes about autism and disability are rooted in some individuals. Hoping that the rest of the holidays are truly joyful and peaceful for Cameron and Liam and their family. Perhaps some Santas also need some disability sensitivity training before donning their red suit and white beard?
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