CINCINNATI — If you are somebody who once believed in Santa Claus and stopped — because you got older or jaded or something just didn't go right one year — consider the story of Patrick Boyne.
Patrick is 8, and he has autism. He lives in Delhi Township with his mom, Amy, his dad, Pierce, and his older sister, Audrey.
Patrick's family had a difficult time explaining Christmas to him. He didn't like presents. He didn't like crowds. He didn't really talk until he was 4 years old and then had what his mom calls "very limited speech" until he was about 7. Patrick's family told him about Santa, but they weren't really sure how much he understood or cared, Amy said.
Last December, Patrick's family was at Cincinnati Museum Center to see the holiday trains when they saw Santa come out of his office. Much to his mom's surprise, Patrick rushed up to Santa and — without saying hello or introducing himself — told Santa that he wanted a VTech Go! Go! Smart Ultimate Amazement Park play set for Christmas.
"I don't do this anymore, but I said, 'I'm sorry, Santa. He's got autism, and he's new at this,'" Amy said.
Santa asked Patrick's name, went back into his office and brought out a sleigh bell for the boy.
Last Christmas morning, for the first time in his life, Patrick woke up early, rushed to the tree and ripped open the biggest package under it — the VTech Go! Go! Smart Ultimate Amazement Park play set.
He talked about Santa for weeks and slept with his sleigh bell each night for more than a month, Amy said.
And, as fantastic as that was, this Christmas had been even better.
Patrick's parents took him to the Museum Center at a time when they were told the lines would be the shortest. When his mom asked Patrick if he wanted to wait to see Santa, he said yes.
Patrick stood patiently for about five minutes until it was his turn to talk to Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Amy told Santa that Patrick had met him for the first time last year and that Santa had given him a bell.
"Santa said, 'Oh, I remember! Hold on, I'm going to be right back,'" Amy said.
Santa left, and Patrick hopped into his chair and started talking with Mrs. Claus. She asked how Patrick was doing and if he enjoyed the trains while Patrick sat still for the longest time his mom could remember. Conversations can be difficult for Patrick, but he talked with Mrs. Claus easily, Amy said.
When Santa came back, he had another sleigh bell for Patrick.
The boy sat right on Santa's lap, told him what he wanted for Christmas this year and even allowed his parents to take a photo of him.
"We don't get pictures of him very often unless he's totally caught off guard," Amy said. "He was making eye contact and gave eye contact to Santa."
Now, none of that might sound like much to you if you were a kid who looked forward to visiting Santa or if you have children or grandchildren who can't wait for their turn on his lap each year.
But it's different for kids with autism and their parents.
And for the Boynes, Patrick's first interaction with Santa last year was a major milestone.
It even helped guide his therapy at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center's behavioral psychology department. And that work has made him more comfortable with having conversations with adults in settings where that is expected.
For Amy and her husband, it's been one of the best Christmas presents they could imagine. And her post about the experience on her Facebook page has given hope to other parents of kids with autism spectrum disorder who want their children to be able to visit with Santa one day, too.
Amy knows there are special "sensory" Santas for kids like Patrick, but the timing for those has never worked out for her family.
"To have just a typical experience with Santa was even better for us," she said. "Our kids can stand out at times and seem different, and it makes it hard to get out."
For Patrick Boyne, the magic of Santa broke through the disorder that made it difficult for him to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of childhood.
"If you are looking for the real Santa, you will find him and the lovely Mrs. at the Museum Center," Amy wrote on her Facebook page.
Patrick decided on his own that other people dressed up like Santa are the helpers of the real one at the Museum Center.
And you can bet the Museum Center Santa is getting credit for the package Patrick opened this morning — The Simpsons House Lego set he requested. Patrick has never seen the show, his mom said, but he has watched people build the house on YouTube and has been trying to recreate it with his sister's Legos.
"My husband and I both think that he believes Santa Claus is real," Amy told me. "Down the road, I don't know what that looks like. But for now, the spirit is pretty remarkable for him."
Looking at that sweet smile on Patrick's face in his picture with Santa and Mrs. Claus, it's kind of hard not to believe.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.