Erin Deely remembers the first time her son met Santa. He was nine months old, siting on the jolly man’s lap and smiling.
“He didn’t know any better. He didn’t have a clue to be scared. It was before his diagnosis,” the 36-year-old mom remembers.
But just before he turned three, doctors diagnosed her son Brayden with autism – and Santa pictures got tougher and tougher to take.
“I thought we would never get those holiday pictures with him because it’s something he can’t handle – the noise, and the pressure. He gets anxious if you ask him to smile, it’s all too much for him,” Erin tells PEOPLE exclusively.
But then she heard about the Caring Santa program, an annual program that the group Autism Speaks helps organize at malls across the country. They bring in special Santas at a quiet time to offer families a more controlled environment.
But Erin never expected to see what happened this past weekend at Charlotte, North Carolina’s SouthPark mall.
“Brayden was shy and inched his way over slowly and then Santa just slowly gets out of his seat and gets on the ground and starts playing with the toys that my son brought,” she says.
The result? Adorable pictures of the duo playing on the floor beside Santa’s throne.
“Oh my gosh, to be able to do something that other families do…normally a lot of things are harder for us as a family and we got to do the same tradition as everyone else, we just do it on the floor,” she laughs.
The stay-at-home mom says this was truly a special gift from Santa to her whole family.
“I just want to hug this man. He’s so wonderful!” she says.