We’ve never visited Santa without tears. We’ve never shaken hands with a character at a theme park. We’ve never waved at Batman when he came to the children’s hospital to greet the kids. They all come on too strong—like Ralphie’s creepy Santa and his pushy elf from A Christmas Story. That’s not the kind of mojo my kid needs. Because my kid has special needs and he’s not digging the loud, Broadway version of his favorite characters. It’s a little too over-the-top, a little too theatrical. He wants the whisper not the shout. The hug not the awkward lap.
I used to live in New York, on the upper Eastside in a tiny studio apartment. Every morning around 8 a.m., I would, inevitably, find myself crushed and sweaty in the throng of others fighting and shoving in the name of commerce to get on the subway to get to their jobs to earn their money to pay their own outlandishly high rent on their tiny apartment. But once, just once, it was worth it. Because I saw Duckie. You know, Jon Cryer from Pretty in Pink, whom I refuse to acknowledge in Two and a Half Men. He will always be the boy in the newsroom hat and round sunglasses, loving Molly Ringwald from afar. My Duckie was reading a paperback and waiting for the 7 train. The wait was long. I had plenty of time to watch and wonder if it would ruin his morning to be gently accosted by a hyperventilating fan. He got on the 7. I let the moment pass and watched Duckie ride out of my life forever. It was just too much, you see? To have him there, out of my head and in real life, was like an implosion in the space-time continuum. Reality had stumbled and I was my adolescent self again. It took me a minute to fall back into adulthood and breathe normally. That’s the closest I can get to wrapping my head around what happens to my son when he tries to meet his character heroes in real life. It’s just too much. It’s a head trip in the least fun way imaginable.
That’s why I’m stalking the Caring Bunny this Easter, actually tomorrow, on April 2nd, World Autism Awareness Day. He’s the sensory-friendly Easter bunny that Autism Speaks and Noerr Programs Corporation teamed up to create in order to give kids with special needs a chance to breathe easier around the big bunny himself. He’s their approachable Jon Cryer. He’ll be in malls all across America on April 2nd waving and offering high fives or hugs and soft greetings. He’ll be the one in the wire-rim glasses and muted colors who will let you approach without hurry and without fear. He will wait as long as you need.
I’ve already looked up the locations in our state and Google-mapped our route. And on the eve of this Easter visit, I will set it all up in our pre-game pep talk by reading him the Autism Speaks teaching story. I will let him know there will be a line he might have to wait in, but there will also be games and books and crafts so it won’t be too bad. I will let him know that he can get his picture taken, but he doesn’t have to because it’s his visit his way. I will make a special point to emphasize that when he finally gets to the end of that line, he can, as the story goes, “give him a hug or a high five, but only if [he] want[s] to. [He] can also just wave.” I will show him the pictures of other kids doing just that so he can have a chance to get familiar and excited before the big day and so that there will be no surprises, no hassled helpers, no shoving line, no rushing bunnies already eyeing the next kid behind.
For parents out there who are already deep-breathing into paper bags at the thought of traumatizing their kids with this next holiday visit, I hope you’ll give the Caring Bunny a chance to make amends for all the other Donny Darko versions, all the other angry santas, all the other scary princesses. This one might just be your Pretty in Pink re-write.
(This article first appeared in Her View From Home: This is the Sensory-Friendly Easter Bunny Your Kids Will Love.)