Christmas with Autistic Kid

I have not had much time for writing of late, although I do have much to say, much that remains to be written, about lifewithautistickid. 

So, as Christmas draws nearer, I have decided to republish an earlier post about Christmas with a child with severe autism. 

For most of us Christmas is a wonderful time of celebration and joyous anticipation.  It is a time to give and receive, a time to enjoy with friends and family.  For N – it has always been a time of bewilderment and anxious anticipation.  A time to wonder….now what!… now who?  Certainly no joy.  I will write later, to tell you if this year was any different, because of what happened last year.  Read on and find out what we did differently, last year…….

From a very early age, Nicholas hated Christmas. He did enjoy the tree, with all its multi-coloured twinkling lights.  But he was ambivalent to the rest of the Christmas, including the wrapped boxes under the tree. He loved going for a drive to see the outdoor lights along the streets at nighttime. He enjoyed the music of the season.   But Christmas day itself, with its visitors, its commotion, its surprises that appeared mysteriously from inside the wrapped boxes under the tree, was truly terrifying for him.

Christmas was always big in my house as a child and I was careful to keep the tradition of faith-tempered materialism with my own family.   Along with the cultural celebration, I emphasized with my kids the “reason for the season”; for the true meaning of Christmas is, to me, a guidepost whose direction lasts beyond Christmas day to everyday.  Even so I confess that the spiritual gifts have, at times, been overshadowed by the stuff of Christmas. For N, though, the entire Christmas exercise, authentic or otherwise, defied comprehension. 

Christmas day always began with a frenzy in the livingroom as everybody tore open their long-anticipated presents. While the gift opening extravaganza took place, Nicholas hid himself elsewhere in the house. Sometimes he would hide in the master bathroom, which was the furthest room from the livingroom. Sometimes he would hide under the covers on the top bunk of his brother’s bed where it was dark and safe.  It was clear – he wanted nothing to do with opening presents on Christmas morning.

As Christmas day went on, friends and family members would come and go, and again, Nick had no idea why. But he knew each time a new batch of people would arrive, the Christmas tree frenzy would repeat itself. Again and again, poor Nicholas would go into hiding, beside himself with confusion and anxiety.

As Christmases came and went, I felt each time the familiar pangs of disappointment  when once again, N hated Christmas.  N hated Christmas not in a sort of way that would benefit from watching “The Grinch”, but in a “OMG NO” sort of way!

I put alot of thought into his Christmas, into his gifts, I tried to make him happy, or so I believed.  I wanted to make everybody happy. I wanted everybody in the family to find treasure under the tree as a symbol of my love. But year after year, the same old scenario repeated itself with little or no improvement.  At least, as N got older, he stopped hiding in abject fear while the gifts were opened.  Sometimes he would even tolerate staying in the livingroom while we unwrapped. Yet for years when it came to his own gifts, there remained apprehension – he would watch anxiously as I opened the presents I had wrapped for him to open himself.  Once the gift was revealed, sometimes he would hold the object briefly before discarding it, other times he simply ran from the room.

Nick is an autistic kid who does not understand the purpose of toys.  And like many autistic kids, N does not like surprises, whether they are unexpected people arriving at the house, or “new” or “different” or “unexpected” wonderful things.    So – a gift, especially one that is not carefully given, knowing that there is no comprehension of toys,  is simply an unpredictable, undesireable, thing.  It took me years to digest this, to understand how to modify Christmas for him.  I wanted him to adapt to Christmas!  I finally realized that, if that was to happen,  I needed to somehow show him the meaning of giving.  He needed to understand that a gift was something both special and wonderful and that it came from love.

Over the years I experimented with the nature and quantity of presents for N.  I learned fairly early on that fewer presents were better than more presents, for N.  That was a bit of a conceptual leap for me, because for my two older “normal” kids, I was very aware that the relative number of presents was used to make inferences about the relative measure of parental love. For N on the other hand, everything was different!  It eventually occurred to me, if I reduced the number of surprises under the tree, that I would have a better chance of getting them opened by him on Christmas day.  

Our first successes occurred when N was 5 – we actually got 2 gifts opened on Christmas day!  However, three gifts stayed under the tree until Little Christmas on Jan 6.   Guess it was still my Christmas, and not his.  Guess I was buying things for him that were defined by what I wanted him to play with. 

When N was 7 or 8 – I was careful to buy fewer things, but only things that he seemed to enjoy, as opposed to things that I wanted him to learn to play with. So Nick got lots of chunky peg puzzles, and Mighty Machine DVDs.   Still, on Christmas day, we had trepidation from him.

Last Christmas – I was finally able to think outside my box.   I was finally thinking about what would really constitute a “gift” for N.  I stopped caring about quantity, quality, money, stuff that everybody else would think about.  Last year N was into the sense of smell.  For many years his sense of smell lied dormant, but all of a sudden the world of scents had come alive.  He still loved to spin things – cloths, rubber gloves, puzzle pieces – but now the best things to spin had a scent!   Dryer sheets!  He loved to twirl them, to drop them and watch as they slowly flit and float to the floor, he loved to smell them and breathe in their fresh air clean scents. So last year I wrapped up three boxes of dryer sheets and put them under the tree.

Yes, I felt some guilt at what my own mind interpreted as an extremely poor gift. But on Christmas day I realized otherwise! For when Nick opened up his gifts and found boxes of his favorite things, not once, not twice, but three times under the tree, his face lit up with a huge smile of comprehension.   And maybe he also realized the meaning of Christmas, the meaning of giving! 

I am sure that this could be the first known instance of dryer sheets being given as a Christmas gift. Never said we weren’t unique at lifewithautistickid!

Boys at Christmas 2004


About lifewithautistickid

I am a Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA), with an MBA and BA. I have been fortunate to have had an extraordinary life with an autistic kid. I have learned so much from him about people and life in general. I want to make a difference by sharing my extraordinary experiences. Raising a son with severe autism and developmental disability has made me realize how we who are "normal" do not understand "disability". Instead of trying to "fix" people like my son by burying them in the community, I would like to see a society that respects and honors them for who they are. The potential is endless, in a world that can celebrate with sincerity, the dignity of the individual. Love and blessings to people of all "disability" . That includes you and me!
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