I recently asked if people on the Facebook group that is a companion to this blog wanted to talk about their girls at Christmastime (if they celebrated Christmas), and many did---thank you to all of you! (and if you are reading this and have a girl with autism in your life, and you aren't already in the group, I'd love to have you join---it's a friendly and welcoming place!)
A few things stood out about our girls and Christmas. One is that it's not about the presents, for the most part. Another is that it can be an overwhelming time. But with those things kept in mind, most of the girls and their families did find a way to enjoy Christmas and make it a special time.
The part about the gifts was striking to me, in that most of the girls were like Janey---not big fans of gifts. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part, gifts were one of the toughest parts of the season. In a way, that might sound like every parent's dream. We hear over and over that Christmas isn't supposed to be about getting presents, and of course it isn't, but presents are a big part of it, and to have a child that no only doesn't much want any presents but can even be actively upset by them is hard.
There were some great ideas people have. One person talked about making the Christmas stocking full of small unopened toys, instead of having presents under the tree that had to be opened. Another idea was having one box with all the presents in it, to reduce opening. A great idea was giving a little present each Sunday of Advent, to practice. An important thing is finding presents our girls actual like---like sensory toys or food.
I've always struggled with presents for Janey. Part of it for me is a feeling of equality. I don't want to just give her brothers presents and not her (although, to be honest, Janey would not notice or care). And I ENJOY getting toys and gifts for Janey. But she hates opening presents. She doesn't get it, and it is not fun for her. This year, there was a wonderful moment when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas and she actually answered "a book", so of course there will be a pile of books for her under the tree, but I won't wrap them. I will give her one wrapped present---a tabletop drum set. And her stocking will have a lot of chocolate in it (yes, I know I've said in the past chocolate makes her crazy and insomniatic, but she loves it, and I want her to get something she loves) I won't try to make her watch her brothers open things, and I won't be upset if she shows no reaction to anything she gets. That's the plan, anyway.
I think one of the most stressful parts of Christmas for us as autism parents is that our kids often have a hard time sharing Christmas with extended family and with friends. We can control things to some extent at home, but it's hard when visiting others. And it's hard sometimes for grandparents and other relatives, too. They want to share Christmas, to give presents, and it seems to go against what is expected that the very sharing and hospitality and presents can be a source of stress. A lot of families just don't make visits, or if they do, it's to one place each year. We go every Christmas Eve to a dear friend's house. Janey knows the family well, and I think knows that is the plan. She is an early to bed kid, and so we have a lot of the night after she falls asleep for the our two families to have time together, but while she's awake, they know her and make sure there's food she likes and routines she understands for her to enjoy. That means a great deal to me.
What do our girls like about Christmas? A lot of girls like the tree and the decorations. Traditions also seem to fit naturally with autism! They are routines, after all. And for Janey, and some other girls, the best part of Christmas is the music. Starting at the beginning of November, I switch my iPod to an all Christmas list. I know a lot of people hate Christmas music too early, but for Janey, that's a compromise---she'd listen all year, and at least keeping it to two months makes it a little more special! I sing carols to her every night at Christmastime as she goes to sleep. She seems each year to pick a carol or song that she loves best. This year, it's been "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" She especially seems to like later verses of carols. She's gotten very annoyed with me a few times for not remembering all the verses of "We Three Kings", especially the depressing one about sorrowing and dying!
One of the most amazing and wonderful moments ever with Janey, one of those I hesitate to mention almost because it seems like one of those "autism is magic" stories that in daily life don't really happen that often---when Janey was about 6, she heard the Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah for the first time, in the car. She was quiet and looked to be in awe for the whole thing, and when it was over, she burst into applause, clapping for a long, long time---something she had never done before for a song, much like the first time George II
of England heard it and stood up in honor, which has become the traditional thing to do. It was a moment I'll remember all my days.
Autism never takes a holiday. That can be very tough at times like Christmas. It's hard having to adjust plans, presents, visits and expectations for the whole family to avoid meltdowns, but not doing so is even harder, as a meltdown filled Christmas is not fun for anyone. Overall, I felt encouraged by hearing from others about their Christmases. We seem to find a way to find joy in the season even with the challenges. It's not easy, but not much of this autism parenting gig is. I hope all of you have a wonderful Christmas and/or New Year. We are all in this together, wherever in the world we might be, and that truly does help. Merry Christmas.