Friday, December 9, 2016

Christmas with Autism

Christmas time, the most wonderful time of the year! Or is it?

Choosing a Tree, 2015
My fifteen-year-old son Tate has autism. He is excited about the approaching holiday. He does look forward to Christmas, but not for all the same reasons many of us do. 

For many of us, Christmas means family gatherings, jingling bells, shopping, baking, visiting, wrapping, music, colorful lights, evergreen trees, and maybe even snow. The wonderful smells, sounds, and sights are a welcome vacation from a regular routine for the majority, it seems.

But for some of the autism community, the festivity assaults the senses and causes distress. The gatherings are too invasive, the smells and sounds disturbing, the sights unsettling, and the break in routine almost agonizing.

Parents, who long before a diagnosis, may have dreamt of Christmas photos with Santa, trips to seek out the perfect evergreen, and Tonka trucks under the tree, come to accept a different reality. The Santa at the mall terrifies their child, a trip to a tree farm is out of the question, and that Tonka truck is only ever used upside down, to spin the wheels.

There will be no big feast on Christmas day, eaten around a large table, surrounded by family, for the family member with autism. He has a different kind of Christmas. He wants --No. He NEEDS-- to eat in his room. Alone. His cousins ask why he won’t play with them. His grandparents wonder why he cannot hug them. Some relatives raise their eyebrows at the way he’s being so “coddled”. It’s hard to understand if you do not live it.

And then, there’s the gift giving and receiving. Some of the things my own son has asked for over the years are challenging to find. The ring from “The Lord of the Rings” movies is a current wish. A hover-board (that really hovers) like Michael J. Fox rode in “Back to the Future” is on his Christmas list this year. The tablet of Ahkmenrah that brought the displays to life in the “Night at the Museum” movies was once on his list. Of course, I can often find reproductions of these kinds of things and those are sometimes accepted without disappointment. A friend crafted a replica of that magical tablet that brought the museum exhibits to life, and Tate loves it. I am dreading the day he asks for the invisibility cloak from “Harry Potter”. There are some things even Santa cannot do.

Many children with autism are similar to my son and very interested in movies and the props. A lot of kids with autism become very focused on other things. I commonly hear about preoccupations with dates and history, technology, video games, math facts, dinosaurs, trains, super heroes, weather, or ocean life, to name a few.

Some people with autism have interests that are more notable. My own son is captivated by our washer and dryer, but had a love affair with the vacuum when he was small. We had very clean floors for years. Now our laundry hampers are never allowed to become full. I have met several in the autism community who have similar stories about their children and a fixation on household appliances though, so this is not really rare it seems.

However, interests can be more unique. Two different people have told me recently that their children with autism have a fixation on ceiling fans, the different models, and how they work. Another has a child interested in rotary dial telephones and their parts. Yet another parent told me their child is interested in lawn mowers, even memorizing the model numbers. One child is enthralled with Boeing aircraft, and ONLY Boeing. A friend in Pennsylvania told me last week that her son is fascinated by elevators. On his Christmas list are elevator parts. He wants button panels and indicator lights. Seriously. His heart’s desire is to have an elevator parts collection. What is a mother to do? Anyone know of an elevator parts graveyard she can visit? 

What are some of the things your children with autism are interested in? How many mountains have you moved in the past so that your child could have that special gift under the tree? We want to hear your stories. 

If you liked this post, you might also like to read about another holiday: When Halloween is not about the candy