Friday, December 21, 2018

The Greatest Present of All…No Gift Wrapping Required - Re-Post

First published quite a few years ago...

The first time we tried to introduce Mikey to Santa, he ran so far in the opposite direction that he came up behind Ol' St. Nick (think about it…you'll get it, heh, heh). Christmas, Hanukah, all of the holiday seasons, are often challenging times for our autistic children (and for us parents, too).

We celebrate Christmas in our home, and have always tried to have a traditional holiday celebration. Of course, all the standard elements are there: the tree, lights, music, Santa, presents, etc. Ah, but when it comes to autism, as we all know well, standard and traditional are not always standard and traditional.

As I mentioned, the whole Santa Claus thing didn't go over well with Mikey (as a matter of fact, he didn't care for the Easter Bunny we saw in the mall either--but he absolutely loves when we see Chuck E. Cheese…I guess giant walking rodents are more his thing). He's become more comfortable over the past couple years and now quickly identifies the jolly, stout man in the red suit as "Santa" (or, lately, the even cuter response when asked who Santa is: "Christmas").

Christmas lights and music are even bigger potential problems for autistic children. But as it was with Santa, repeated exposure in a positive way (desensitizing) has helped Mikey to enjoy these beautiful aspects of the season.

Mikey's choice of music is often restricted to the "Jack's Big Music Show" soundtrack or something similar, so if one of his favorite cartoon characters is singing a Christmas tune he’ll pay extra attention. Being in a classroom environment where music is one of the tools used to teach has also helped Mikey to embrace all kinds of music. Just another reason I firmly believe that things like art and music can be used as a pathway to getting our children to communicate with us and to helping them feel more comfortable in an otherwise confusing environment.

As for the pretty, multi-colored brightness of the yuletide lights, it warmed my wife and my hearts this year to see Mikey smile and stare as we drove past the beautifully decorated houses in our neighborhood. We didn't waste a second in taking him to a drive-thru Christmas lights display, and the excitement that we saw come over him was well worth every penny of the donation fee. Of course, now daddy is feeling the pressure to create a Broadway-show-quality lighting display at our home (I'm afraid Mikey is out of luck on that one…yours truly is not-so-handy with that sort of thing and my sad attempt at Christmas lights equates to a lit snowman with a bad habit of falling over into pieces each night).

The remaining challenge of Christmas that Mikey still doesn't really understand is presents. The first Christmases after we entered the world of autism were a bit heartrending as we would place a wrapped present in front of Mikey on Christmas morning, only to watch him get up and walk away or at best be more interested in the gift's box. But we've persevered every Christmas (and birthdays, too) and Mikey is to the point where he'll rip open his presents' wrapping paper on his own now. We've also taken to bringing him to Toys 'R Us and letting him walk in front of us by himself as we watch what toys he'll walk up to or what keeps his interest. At least this way, if we buy those toys for him, we feel like he sort of gave us a Christmas list.

Helping our autistic children through this time of year takes the same focused steps we use every day: patience, love, and awareness. Those are the gifts we give our children on a daily basis…no holiday needed…no gift wrapping required.

So, when the holiday is over, the guests have gone home, and the house is a mess, embrace what remains…the true meanings of the holiday (peace, love, and family). Hug your child, tell them you love them, and be thankful for the gift you hold in your arms.