On Christmas morning my son will have a meltdown – absolutely guaranteed. It happens on Mother’s Day as well. So if I know he’s going to have a meltdown, why don’t I put things in place to prevent it? Short answer – because my mummy isn’t here anymore, which means there’s no way to put things in place. On Christmas Day, my son will wake up in anticipation of all his presents from Santa. He’ll excitedly rip open all of them, maybe start playing; and then it will dawn on him that mom didn’t get any present and he has none to give me.
Being on the autism spectrum, my son sees the world very literally. While those who don’t know better think that autistics often lack empathy, I’ve seen firsthand how my son’s high degree of empathy causes himself pain, both physical and emotional. He won’t understand that my joy comes from his happiness because he equates happiness with gifts and thinks that applies to everyone. No matter how I try to explain, he will consider himself to be the worst child ever because everyone has presents to open except for mom. My time then becomes a mix of trying to console him and trying to reassure him that mom is happy, that I didn’t need any presents on this day or any other day. These are the moments I miss my mummy the most. Without a doubt, she would’ve made sure there were presents under the tree signed from my son. Don’t get me wrong… I love the spirit of the season; I understand the true meaning of Christmas. But maybe that’s why it hurts so much because a part of my family isn’t with me. The person who would’ve supported me most as I try to navigate all the trials and tribulations of being an autism mama.
My son, being on the autism spectrum, is the most practical and analytical individual that I know. I often refer to him as “my mini Sheldon Cooper” because of his similarities to the Big Bang Theory character – his dry wit and extreme intellect. For as long as I can remember, there have been very few instances where he will take information as given without questioning and determining the validity of what has been provided. So it shocks me that at nine years old, he still believes in Santa.
Christmas has always been my favorite time of year and my parents were brilliant in their creativity where Santa was concerned.
Me: how does Santa get in our house? We don’t have a chimney.
Them: just for Christmas Eve, we leave the door unlocked so he comes in the front door.
Me: how does he come down the chimney? Won’t he get burnt by the fire?
Them: he lets parents know what time he’s coming so they’ll put out the fire.
Me: what if they forget?
Them: he has magic dust that he sprinkles down the chimney which will out the fire and cool it instantly.
Me: how can he really deliver presents to everyone in one night?
Them: well there are a few ways… because of time differences, he actually has longer than just one night. Also he really starts from the beginning of December and he asks parents to help him by accepting the presents early and keeping them hidden.
When I eventually learnt that Santa wasn’t real, it was because my dad had lost his job a few months earlier and my parents weren’t sure that they could meet all of our expectations of Santa. Maybe my empathy allowed me to remember that Christmas differently, but to my recollection my brother and I still got everything we wanted and our Christmas wanted for nothing.
Was Christmas only about Santa and gifts in our family? Nope! Santa was an added aspect but we always understood and appreciated the day as the celebration of the birth of Jesus. To this day, “Away in a Manger” is my favorite Christmas song and if it didn’t seem weird to play it every day, I would.
When I had my son, it was important that the love and joyousness, I had always experienced would be passed down to him… first and foremost, him understanding the true meaning – to celebrate Jesus’ birthday and then to enjoy the presents, love, laughter and Santa.
There are many parents who feel that letting your children believe in Santa is un-Christian. But one of my favorite stories ever is “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” and if we deeply ponder on the words in the story, isn’t it possible that Santa represents everything Jesus epitomizes in the spirit of the season. Knowing that the existence of love, generosity and devotion are with us and that “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”
My son is one of the most empathetic people I know. He struggles with his emotions but his kindness and generosity are unquestionable. His belief in Santa has always been secondary to his understanding of the true meaning of Christmas. His prayers every Christmas always include a thank you to God for all his presents and singing happy birthday to Jesus. I hope his love for all things Christmas continues for as long as it brings happiness to his life.
Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago: that wonderful, magical time of year, filled with music, food, family, shopping, parang and merriment. But for those on the autism spectrum, this can be a time filled with anxiety and frustration simply due to the nature of the season. Here we take a look at some of the key areas of concern and how it can be made a little smoother for everyone.
At this time of year, everything is louder, bigger, more intense. The crowds in the malls are thick; parang and soca are streaming from the neighbours’ houses; the smell of ham and bread baking in your kitchen, sorrel being made next door and curry from two doors down. What does all of this mean for the child on the autism spectrum? The perfect recipe for a meltdown!
Parents, if you know your child’s particular triggers, see if there is any way they can be minimised. Would sound reducing headphones help? If there is a noisy activity that happens at a regular time, maybe you can use that time to take a drive to get ice cream. Go to the mall at 10AM instead of 3PM. Sometimes talking to your child and letting them know that these activities are a possibility can help in preparing them and it may give them the opportunity to express their feelings. None of these are fool proof. But it’s important to try and see what happens. And be prepared that what worked last year Christmas may not work this year. Know that as much as kiddo loves going by Grandma on any other day of the year, it may be akin to world war 3 when you go at Christmas time. Friends and family, if you know one of your guests is on the spectrum, perhaps you can clear a room specifically for their use. Very often, children can regroup and recharge if they know they have a quiet, dimmed safe zone that they can escape to.
Another matter is food. Autistic children often have major food aversions and their diet can be very repetitive and rigid. I always make sure that my son eats before we leave home and I usually have snacks with me in case the fare provided is not to his standards. Please don’t take this personally when he says he’s not hungry. Firstly, that’s his polite way of saying that he will not eat your food under any circumstances. Secondly, as his parent, I don’t want to put you through any more trouble than necessary. However, if the next time you invite us, you would like to make sure and prepare something specifically for him, understand that your ego cannot be invested in what you have made. We will need for you to prepare exactly what we tell you, exactly as we tell you. Their senses are often so heightened that white rice instead of the basmati rice we advised can trigger a meltdown.
Who doesn’t love presents, especially at Christmas time? Before we go shopping, let’s think about this through the eyes of an autistic. Rigidity and repetition govern their behaviour which means they may fixate on a particular character or activity for years. For over four years, my son was utterly obsessed with Lightning McQueen. Now you might think “all 5 year old boys like toy trucks” and you’ve visited our home and seen that he has every possible item of Lightning McQueen already. But that’s not the point. He would have appreciated a $10 pack of Lightning McQueen stickers more than the $1000 truck you splurged on and for that moment, he would be happy. And isn’t that the point of getting presents. Forget about your preconceived notions. Ask what kiddo wants and get that! Even if it means an Elsa doll for an 18 year old girl or My Little Pony for a 5 year old boy.
As with any other time of year, routine is critical. Try to maintain that as much as possible. Parents, don’t stress about the season. If you need to treat this day as any other, then do so. Friends and family, be understanding and don’t take any action as a personal affront. You’re seeing a glimpse into what we live with every day but in overdrive because of the heightened emotional time of Christmas.
Originally written for Care Parenting for publication in the Trinidad Guardian
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