Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Holiday Spectrum

“Traditionalists are pessimists about the future and optimists about the past”
-          Lewis Mumford

Christmas. It conjures up different meanings for different people; some religious, others more secular. Anymore, I just think of crazy people killing each other in stores over really inconsequential material items.

What Christmas almost always means for everybody is tradition. Each year people make a habit of decorating their house the day after Thanksgiving, some families trek to a certain relative’s house that always seems to hold court on Christmas, some families have gift giving traditions. The process of decorating the home is a tradition for most. They break out all the Christmas related trinkets that they have collected throughout the years, most with sentimental value. Ornaments on the tree are usually special for people as well. They were either given by a family member, or maybe they denote a special event in the life of your family… like a birth… or in our case three births. There are midnight church services that families go to in a celebration of their faith. Maybe you are one of the people that have developed a new tradition and pitch a tent for Black Friday specials outside of a store? If so, take some milk with you to pour into your eyes if you go to Wal-Mart,

We take these rituals for granted. When Christmas comes, we execute these traditions as if we are on auto-pilot. We do them, because that is what we have ALWAYS done. To do anything different would seem foreign. They are almost like a reassurance for us that we have survived another year.

So what does it do to your psyche when something disrupts those traditions? How does it change the family dynamic? For many families dealing with kids that are on the autism spectrum, traditions have had to be altered or dropped.

If you took a walk through our house at this time of year, probably what would be most striking is the lack of holiday decorating. It is a stark contrast to three years ago. Our tradition used to be that we would decorate the outside of the house like crazy with both our big pine trees lit up and the bushes twinkling in the night. We would put lights in the window and decorate the entryway to the house with garland and sleigh bells. All throughout the house we would switch all of our trimmings to Christmas themed trinkets and tablecloths, pillows and memorabilia. The tree would be decorated heavily with tinsel (something I have enjoyed since I was a kid) and ornaments on every free branch you could find. It was a magical time.

Nowadays you would never know that there is a holiday coming up until Christmas Eve morning… when we put the tree up. The tree is decorated pretty scarcely and we spend the better part of our time with the tree up keeping Bianca and our 17 month old son from destroying all the ornaments or hurting themselves or knocking down the tree.

Bianca LOVES trees. Whenever she takes off on me when we are walking to the car, there are two places she runs to… our neighbors house because they have a pool (yes I know it scares the crap out of me too) and the tree at the end of our cul-de-sac where she hugs the tree and says “Tree” a bunch of times and waits for me to give her a boost so that she can sit on the lowest branch.

We roll out the presents from Santa after the kids go to bed, wake up and open presents and then we take the tree back down. Short and sweet, it is a far cry from the month long celebration that we used to revel in and milk for all of its commercialization and hype. It is a 24 hour holiday sprint… and guess what? It is better.

You see, an interesting thing happens when you can’t show your neuro-typical kids all the hype about Christmas. Without a tree and decorations to spark questions of presents, when Sofie asks about Christmas, the focus is on the meaning of Christmas and the deeper messages that make the holiday season special. We talk about love and joy, family and giving. When we talk about Santa and toys, the list of wants is small. Like any kid ours LOVE presents, but they are really appreciative and thankful.

I really don’t want my kids to be present crazy. When I was growing up we were pretty poor. My parents had to work hard to scrape together what they bought and every Christmas was magical. As a kid, my famous saying was, “THIS it the greatest Christmas EVER!!” It didn’t matter what I got. I can honestly say that I only have one memory of anything I got for Christmas as a child; get ready for a nerd alert... A Star Wars Imperial Shuttle. It stands out for two reasons: we were broke... and my best friend in the whole world to this day, some 28 years later… broke it on Christmas Day. Mere hours after I got the greatest present in the world. He felt awful and I tried not to be too upset about it because it was an accident. My folks did what any good parent would do that is struggling financially. They took It back and said it was defective. Not exactly a lie… it was not Dan proof.

What was important to my family as I grew up was each other. Spending time together and enjoying each other’s company was what Christmas was all about. I grew up an only child and I think it is a testament to how great my parents are that I did not want to avoid them like the plague during the holidays.

Bianca being on the spectrum has helped to bring back that focus in my life. The important thing isn’t the decorations or a mountain of presents. The greatest thing of value that we can give our children is the knowledge that they have a loving home and that they fill their parents with pride with every accomplishment no matter how small or trivial. What is vital is instilling in them the foundation for becoming good human beings that care for others and meet their fellow man with respect that has to be lost by that persons actions, not gained through an initial defensiveness.

As parents of children on the spectrum, it is easy to focus on all the negative aspects of dealing with autism spectrum disorder during the holiday season. But having a child with special needs has so many rewarding moments. There are so many valuable lessons that you learn or are reminded of on a daily basis. Live in the now. Enjoy today for all it is worth and look at the big picture. For me, I look at the family I always wanted, we have our health, the kids are happy. Life is good.

So what if you have had to change the way you have handled this time of year. Traditions had to start somewhere. We are just going to be able to remember when we started ours.

Happy Holidays to everyone… however you celebrate them.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you. You are SO right. I was a little broken hearted this year when my 4yo who has Autism showed no interest in her presents nd wanted nothing more than to have her normal morning routine. I was looking forward to the excitement on her face...just wanting what every other parent has. But through the day and in reading your post I know that is just not what it's about. I loved your post about Christmas yesterday and I shared it, and in turn so did some of my friends. It is easy to get caught up in the rough stuff this time of year when you have a child on the spectrum, but I am so blessed to have my family, my home, and food on my table...and unconditional love. M Cymbie continues to teach me more every day about true love, acceptance, patience, tolerance, and compassion. In the end that is what it's about, and that's what taters. I hope you and your family had a blessed Christmas and a very happy new yer. And thank you again forth is post! barb