Today is the Eighth Day of Christmas. I confess that this doesn’t really get old…you’d think we’d be tired of the trickling in of packages, of getting a gift per day. It is, in fact, a very soothing way to handle the holidays…at least for US. I don’t know how other people deal with Christmas morning, but we were usually a mess when it was done. Brown paper bags that had been leftover from gift-wrapping were used for hyperventilating. J would be prostrated for most of the day, and we were not in much better shape. I think the idea of a day when the holidays reach a climax with a bounty of gifts piled willy-nilly under the tree while lights flash and everything is super-duper special is not conducive to Peace on Earth, Comfort and Joy or anything that we wanted to experience Christmas morning.
In a nutshell: Christmas morning and Autism can be a bad, bad, bad combo. If you’ll notice, there are no Hallmark movies with this element thrown in for “conflict” and there are no major motion pictures in which an autistic individual walks into a room to be assailed by the trappings of Christmas…all at once.
On the 13th of December we take out our 12 Days board, and J knows that we’re in business. The pattern for the next twelve nights is clear cut, and he knows where we’ll sit, what we’ll do and that we will all be noisy and laughing and taking pictures. His is always the first present to be opened, and no, he’s not excused from the rest of the ritual. We all sit politely (and noisily) to wait for our turn. It doesn’t take more than fifteen minutes (on nights when the song is in its longer stages) and we all get to make eye contact, hug, kiss, interact, all while receiving a token of everyone else’s affection or sense of humor.
On the 24th of December, we finish this nightly ritual and the 12 Days board is left out where it can be seen to be complete and done, and on Christmas morning we each take our stocking (which hang on our bedroom doors) and retrieve whatever is in there. Breakfast is another noisy family ritual, another Sunday event that falls on whatever day the 25th is. J is fine with all this. He gets one movie or book or toy or t-shirt at a time, and he doesn’t have to agonize over which one to enjoy right away. If he gets a t-shirt (which he will tonight,) he can wear it right away (and he might,) or leave it ’til the next day. If he gets a movie, he doesn’t have to go eenie-meenie-minee-mo, he can either watch it or put it aside. I remember, as a kid, being torn over reading this or that book right away, or playing with this toy instead of that one. While I could process that quite easily, for J (and other kids like him) it’s not as easy.
Someone asked me if I thought it was OK to get each person in the household 12 presents. They actually went on to berate me for being “materialistic,” and giving my children the impression that “consumerism” was the purpose of Christmas. I patiently told them to go home and count how many presents they had bought for family members, friends, co-workers and acquaintances, and to tally up how much that had cost them. “Oh, well,’ came the response, “it’s only once a year! And my husband’s business associates always give us things and we have to reciprocate.”
This is my humble opinion: I’d rather buy 12 presents for my immediate family than a pile of “token gifts” and “business gifts” for other people. At the end of the day, because our Twelve Days are so meaningful to US and we take it as Family Time, we plan the gifts to please, tickle the funny bone, warm the heart, and not rip to shreds our already strained pockets. J’s iPad and Proloquo2Go were the biggest investment we made for The Twelve Days this year, and that it has been worth every penny is the greatest understatement this year. Everything else has been firmly planted in the realm of the financially modest. This is the time of year when we say “I’ve been paying attention all along in spite of the fact that it looked like I was gnashing my teeth at the time.”
So far, Dada has received a Darth Vader light saber (bought by TGG because he IS their father,) and a light saber duel was conducted in the dining room.
TGG received the latest (hardcover) installment of Captain Underpants, and -even at the age of 21- reacted with the same gusto and enthusiasm as he did when he was ten. We could hear him laughing (sounding like he did at the age of ten) all the way downstairs.
J, aside from his iPad, has two more Wishbone DVDs that were met with the “I have to close my eyes while I smile because this is too cool to smile in any other way” smile.
I have books. And movies. Last night I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (starring my hero, Judi Dench) and I will wait until J goes back to school to watch Ninotchka and 84 Charing Cross Road, for one I laugh too loudly and for the other I need a whole box of Kleenex as the end approaches. TGG gave me a rather large and fuzzy stuffed gorilla I HAD to name Francisco because anyone who’s seen Elf knows it’s a fun name to say.
As you can see, there is nothing “over the top” about our celebrations, and the emphasis is on making each person smile, whether over a family joke or an observation made over the course of the year. We don’t wait until Christmas morning to pile our best intentions on top of each other and overwhelm J with them. Looked at from a distance, yes, it seems like twelve items are a lot, but the truth of the matter is that each of us would get more than 12 presents if left to plan freely for a Christmas morning gift-opening extravaganza. We’ve removed the “which package do I want to open first? There are so MANY of them! I’m freaking out!” factor from our holidays… The same person who criticized the 12 gifts challenged our process by saying “isn’t the song one of these, two of that, three of the other, and so forth? Why don’t you do it that way?”
At that point I just rolled my eyes. I didn’t want to say “which part of J can’t handle over-stimulation don’t you get? Which part of “this is a lifestyle choice” are you not comprehending?” As she walked away she told me that I was condemning (yes, that was the word she used) TGG to instituting “unusual holiday traditions” for his children simply because I didn’t want to “tackle J’s challenge with Christmas morning” in the proper way. That, I was informed, only teaches him that his family will adjust to him and his needs.
Sigh…these are the moments when the C-section scar itches. Something inside me yells “DU-H!”
Of course we need to think of his needs! Of course we have to work to preserve his peace of mind while teaching him to navigate the outside world! That doesn’t mean we can’t, for our own sakes, make the holidays a little easier for someone who processes information differently. That doesn’t mean that the Twelve Days aren’t (like goofy greeting cards with families wearing the same outfit, or whatever other quirks people consider “tradition”) part of our family’s identity.
J’s comfort is important to us. Our comfort is important to us. Our holidays are not about pleasing outsiders, but about showing affection, sense of humor and togetherness. In a world as mixed up as the one we live in, and with a kid as interesting as ours is, that is the important thing. We have faith that we will pull through all the crappy times, but we also have faith in each other…that we pick our battles when it comes to Christmas shouldn’t bother anyone. It is, after all, a lifestyle choice attached to an extraordinary (although statistics wouldn’t call it that) circumstance called Autism.