Our son, William, who is in the 8th grade, plans his Halloween costume a year in advance. Yes, officially our holiday season begins long before the fall. William is not concerned with what others think. He chooses his costume and takes to the festivities of the day. Maybe it is just the simple pleasure of wearing a costume and blending in with other children, which doesn’t happen often for children with autism (though possibly we as parents are more aware of this than the kids). As with all the holidays we celebrate, William finds comfort in our yearly traditions and the routine of them. Each Halloween, he happily trick-or-treats, then sorts and counts his candy just like most kids. But in the end, it’s not about the candy, because he gives everything but the M&Ms to his sister. It is about the tradition and pureness of the fun.
When holiday season approaches, families with autistic children must consider an array of issues. Holidays bring disrupted schedules, excess noises, and crowds. Picky eating may bring stress to the many social outings. And, even after constant prepping, who doesn’t try to will their kids to remember to say “Thank you” when they receive a gift? The truth is, these are issues for many families, and not just those with autistic children.
Although the holidays magnify sensitivities and bring challenges for many autistic children, these same sensitivities can also bring great clarity to the true meaning of these holidays. This is true of William.
Through the eyes of our son, we see extraordinary innocence and true joy in the holidays. In fact, if we all accepted a similar approach, the often self-imposed stress and anxiety of a looming holiday season may not seem as daunting. In our family, William helps us look through a lens that simplifies the holidays down to the importance of family and celebrating traditions.
Once November rolls around, seeing family is what is most important for William. There is no greater joy for him than the moment a relative arrives — even more so than Santa, whose movements he tracks diligently all Christmas Eve, letting us know Santa’s whereabouts around the world. Family members’ arrivals are greeted with a giant smile. Santa sneaks in and leaves, but family members stay around! What William does, perhaps better than other family members, is appreciate the holidays for what matters most — not gifts, feasts, or stress — but simply family spending time together.
We often try to replicate our own childhood holiday traditions, which give us an opportunity to relive, remember, and find comfort in the past. Again, the routine of those traditions can be comforting to an autistic child. As in my childhood, Christmas Eve in our house brings a feast of antipasto, baked clams, shrimp scampi, linguini with lobster sauce, and more. It fills two days with shopping and meal preparation. This whole experience excites William, and it is ingrained in his mind during this season. He wants to know every planned detail, such as when shopping will begin, when the clams will be opened, when the lobster goes in, when dinner will be ready. The ironic thing is, as much as he relishes the annual routine, until last year he never ate any of the meal. For him, it isn’t about the meal, but the time we all spend together preparing the meal. As the rest of us go through the motions, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of this family time. William’s joy in this special time puts it front and center for us once again.
What William brings to our holidays is the impact of an uncomplicated appreciation of the experience. We often search for perfection in holidays, creating self-imposed stress. William helps us remain focused on what is most important — family and sharing in the joy of the holidays. William will sit by the window long before company is expected, eagerly anticipating their arrival. He will yell when they arrive, be the first to the door, flash his huge smile at them as they enter. He makes everyone that walks through the door feel like they are the most special guests. Everyone comments on how cute he is sitting in the window. No one has ever commented on the decorations. William’s perspective is a gift to us all.