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By Rebecca Dube

Kerry Magro will always remember the first time he met Santa — and it’s not a happy memory.

Things were fine, and then the flash on the camera threw 6-year-old Kerry, who has autism, into sensory overload.

He jumped up, clapped his hands over his ears and started twirling furiously in circles.

His parents decided that a crowded mall was not the best environment for Kerry, and that was the end of his Santa visits.

“It was sad for me,” Magro, now 30, recalls. “I thought, why are those other kids able to do this, and not me? I didn’t have any friends, and I was really trying to find that connection.” He felt like he’d let himself down, and worse, that he’d let Santa down.

Fast forward a couple decades to December, 2018. Another child with autism walks up to Santa. She jumps around, strokes Santa’s gloves, and touches Santa’s mouth when he says “Ho, ho, ho.”

But this time it’s OK. Santa understands. Because this time, Magro is Santa.

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On the left, Kerry Magro at age 6, at the moment right before he had a meltdown while visiting Santa. On the right, Kerry, now 30, plays Santa every year for children who have autism like he does.Courtesy of Kerry Magro

Now an activist, speaker and educator about autism, Magro stepped into Santa’s big black boots five years ago. He clarifies that he cleared his role with the North Pole — the real Santa gave Magro his blessing to be a helper. Now he’s making Christmas dreams come true.

“There’s a lot of joy,” said Magro, who played Santa at Cornerstone Montclair in New Jersey earlier this month. “It’s a labor of love.”

Magro enlisted family and friends, occupational therapists and special education teachers as “elves” to help build an autism-friendly Santa experience. They turn the lights and the music down low, and give each child a 30-minute window so that no one feels rushed. Most importantly, this Santa meets kids at their own level —whether that’s cuddling on Santa’s lap, sitting a careful arm’s-length away or lying on the floor talking about trains.

Santa Kerry Magro, who has autism, meets kids with autism on their level, whether that's bouncing on the couch or down on the floor talking about trains.Courtesy of Kerry Magro

Want to jump up and down on Santa’s chair? Go for it, kid.

Don’t want to touch Santa, or even look at him? That’s cool, too.

Brian Calligy has been visiting Santa Kerry with his daughter Sara, now 10, for five years. She has non-verbal autism, and when she touched his mouth after he boomed “Ho, ho, ho,” Magro understood that meant she loved it when he laughed, so he did it again.

Sara Calligy, 10, who has autism, comes to see Santa Kerry Magro, who also has autism, every year.Brian Calligy

Usually Sara's dad has to explain why she acts the way she does, to interpret for her and manage her interactions. Not with Santa Kerry.

“She was trying her best, in her own way, to interact, and he is catching all those cues. It was just natural,” said Calligy, 54, an IT director in Bluefield, New Jersey. “She was so excited; she’s jumping up and down, and he’s jumping up and down with her. She was so happy. She had a smile from ear to ear.”

"We look forward to it every year," Sara's father, Brian Calligy, says of their visits to Santa Kerry Magro, who has autism like Sara.Brian Calligy

Across the country, you can find many “sensory-friendly” Santas, thanks to increased awareness about the needs of kids with autism spectrum disorders. But Kerry may be the only Santa who actually has autism, himself. Though he was non-verbal until he was nearly 3, he’s built a successful life and business for himself, as a public speaker, author and consultant to parents of children with autism. He runs his own nonprofit organization and is currently pursuing a doctorate degree in education at New Jersey City University. Meeting Santa is a big deal for the kids — meeting Magro is a big deal for parents who often wonder what their children's future will have in store.

“As a parent, seeing what he’s doing not only for my daughter but for all the kids who are there, it’s special,” said Calligy, getting choked up. "Seeing a person with autism and the heights he is reaching, and he still is making time to come and do this — well, we look forward to it every year.”