In a few short days Christmas will be upon us. A culmination of commercialism, parking lot wars, and mad-dash midnight sales will come to an abrupt end with the subtle tick tock of the clock on the mantle which will herald in Christmas morning.
Around the world families will be awoken by small children in the wee hours of the morning begging to see what Santa has left them in their stockings and under the tree. Later they will welcome guests or perhaps travel to see extended family for a special Christmas meal with all the fixings.
However, around the world and perhaps right next door to you, there are families where Christmas is vastly different and perhaps a bit more special because of it. You see, those families have a child with autism...and that can be both a beautiful and albeit sometimes frustrating) home come Christmas morning.
Growing up my family traveled to my Grandparent's home for all the major holidays. At some gatherings there would be more than 5 of my dad's brother's and sister's families at once in their home. Today, I know that my family and many like mine do not have that option. It is simply too difficult to prepare an autistic child for what will happen in a home which is not your own and you are not calling the shots.
I remember as a child my big questions were if we would be opening gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? Do we dress up for dinner or remain casual? Will we be attending church or not? Where will we sleep? Questions such as these were a big deal and once they were answered by my parents I felt more at ease. A simple question and answer talk is not adequate or perhaps even possible when you are raising a child on the autism spectrum. Especially, if that child falls on the severe end and their receptive and expressive language skills are delayed or missing altogether.
To help illustrate my point I ask you to imagine being taken to a person's home in another country to celebrate a holiday you are not familiar with in which everyone around you is trying to explain it to you in a language you do not speak. When you become frustrated they talk louder (because surely that means you will understand them better, right?). They usher you from one activity to the next, giving you food you are not familiar with, in surroundings you do not know. Finally, when you are completely overwhelmed you attempt to leave the room, perhaps even the house, and concentrate on the things you do know, on the things you do like.
This is what celebrating Christmas in an unfamiliar home may be like for a child with autism.
Doesn't sound especially festive and fun does it?
This is why the majority of families with a special needs child prefer to celebrate in their own home and in their own way. In their home they can cushion the amount of change to their child's daily routine and thus provide them with a calmer Christmas and one that the entire family can enjoy together.
This may mean that Christmas gifts come pre-assembled with batteries installed and ready to go. Christmas dinner may be ultra-casual and consist of gluten-free foods or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Most likely you won't find a roaring fire in the fireplace and candlelight. But what you will find is a family that has made the holiday equally as special as the child experiencing it.
Something tells me Jesus wouldn't have his birthday celebrated any other way.
*Temple Grandin's mother, Eustacia Cutler, is quoted as describing Autism and those with it as "Different but not less" and I felt it also perfectly described the celebration of holidays for those with autism and their families.