Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas Present

With just one more door to open on our Advent calendar, we know that Christmas is imminent. Often, December is a difficult month for Alex, even though he eagerly anticipates his birthday and his favorite holiday, Christmas. Like many with autism, sometimes all the hoopla surrounding the holidays can be a bit much for him. To be honest, all the expectations fueled by the media to create a perfect Christmas can make me anxious, too.

The December issue of a magazine sitting on my coffee table (which is cluttered with Alex’s notebooks and pens, his Jeopardy baseball cap, and his tape measure) insists that I still have things to do in the relatively short time between now and Christmas Day: “MAKE IT MAGICAL!” “Amazing holiday gifts (to buy or DIY)” “Host the Perfect Cookie Swap” and “Deck your halls in striking winter whites.” While magical, amazing, perfect, and striking may be good goals for some, I’m just delighted that my decorations look cheerful, the cookies I baked for family and friends are tasty, and I put careful thought into the gifts I’m giving. More importantly, I have remained calm throughout all the preparations, and so has Alex. As Martha Stewart, whose magazine I quoted, would say, “It’s a good thing.”

In contrast to the perfection stressed by December magazines, autism websites offer helpful tips for families in dealing with the sensory overload that often accompanies the holiday season. Talk About Curing Autism provides practical solutions to make the holidays less overwhelming. In “Talk About The Holidays,” they list good suggestions to make holiday photos, food, gifts, noise, and memories easier and better. [To read this article, please click here.] For example, “Be willing to not take it personally if the child shows no interest in the gift given. It may be something that they will come to treasure at a later date.” Having witnessed that first-hand, I know that tip is on target.

Another helpful website, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism at Indiana University, provides social stories for children and adults with autism to teach them coping skills. [To see their website, please click here.] In a social story titled “Christmas Presents,” a good lesson about being a gracious recipient is provided: “It is good to say ‘thank you’ to the person who gave me the present. If I already have the present or do not like the present, I do not say anything. I smile and say ‘thank you.’ Saying that I do not like a present may hurt the person who gave me the present.” Frankly, this lesson about gratitude could benefit many people, not just those with autism.

With Alex, we have learned over the years to encourage him to participate in holiday activities while constantly watching for signs that he is overwhelmed by sensory overload. For many years, he wasn’t particularly interested in the decorations until they were done, but this year, he seemed to enjoy the process, watching me intently as I hung ornaments on the Christmas tree, set up the Christmas village, and decorated the mantel over the fireplace. Although he offers no suggestions for what gifts he would like to receive, he is completely content to trust my judgment about what I think he will like. Moreover, he seems to have learned the lesson in the social story, smiling and saying “thank you,” never telling me that he doesn’t like a gift, except for the year I gave him socks as a joke and he told me that wasn’t a good gift.

Even though Alex has been remarkably calm and content the past few weeks, we know there’s always the possibility that he can become anxious. Moreover, we know the importance of being flexible, despite the attempts to make Christmas as magical, amazing, and perfect as possible. Last year, we had nearly made it to my brother’s house for our family Christmas get-together when our car skidded slightly on ice. Although this was a momentary loss of control, it was enough to make Alex lose control, and he insisted we had to go home immediately. Despite reassurances, he needed to go home where he felt safe, and we had to honor his requests. While not being able to be with family was disappointing, we had to put his needs first, as we always do. For many years, we didn’t even try to go to family holiday gatherings because Alex couldn’t handle them. At least now we can try, but we prepare ourselves for the possibility that we may have to cancel plans at the last minute. This is the reality of life with autism, which is not always magical, amazing, or perfect.

However, for Alex, Christmas preparations don’t revolve around decorations or food. He will tell you that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, and he likes to celebrate by listening to Christmas music. In addition to the two Christmas concerts he has enjoyed this holiday season, Alex has been singing Christmas songs with his music therapist and listening to holiday songs on his CD player. Remembering favorite songs from years past, he has sent me searching the house for specific CD’s he wants to hear. The other day, he had me looking for “Glory to God in the Highest” and rewarded my efforts by smiling and swaying to the upbeat contemporary gospel tune. Last night, he requested a Christmas song by gospel songwriters Bill and Gloria Gaither, “Look Who Just Checked In.” After my unsuccessful hunt for the CD with that song, he was able to find a video performance of the song on YouTube. Always curious as to what makes a song special for Alex, I listened to the lyrics along with him:

“Look who just checked in, into the barn, into the world, into the hearts of the boys and girls. Never been a baby quite like Him. Look who just checked in.

He’s the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Lord of the Universe and every little thing. Emmanuel says time again, God is with us once again, once again.”

Despite all the obstacles autism presents in social skills and communication skills and sensory issues, Alex understands the true meaning of Christmas: the birth of our Savior. It’s not decorations or food or presents; it’s the reminder that God sent his Son to Earth to check in to the world and into our hearts. As if that were not gift enough, He gave me my son to remind me what makes Christmas truly magical, amazing, and perfect. “Glory to God in the highest!”

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11

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