Why I told my Autistic Daughter There is no Santa

I love the magic of Christmas. I love the way it changes people and they think about others much more. Charities often make more money in December than the rest of the year and children sing carols and cheerful songs at school. Although it is very commercial it can be a real time for families to come together and children can have an excitement and anticipation as they look forward to a special day.

So why would I ruin all that by telling my sweet blue eyed daughter that there really is no such person as Santa?

Firstly I am not advocating this is right for every child. My daughter has autism so I chose to explain there is no such person as Santa for the following reasons:

1. Her literal thinking was causing her so much distress about Santa.

Books, TV programmes and all her friends at school talked about Santa coming down the chimney. We don’t have a chimney and no made up story of magic keys or flying through windows could change the fact that even the song talks about Santa being stuck up the chimney! She took Santa’s grotto as literal too so became very distressed and confused that Santa could be in the middle of the shopping mall, at her school party AND in the North Pole making presents all at the same time? Why did some Santa’s wear glasses and others didn’t? Why would some be tall and thin while others were short and tubby?

There is no enjoyment in the make believe of a story when your child sees everything in black and white and will not ‘play along’ just for the sake of it.

2. Her anxiety over all things Santa was stopping her sleeping.

The very thought that a stranger would enter her house while she was asleep utterly horrified her. Even though the whole story of him leaving gifts for her should have eased that anxiety she was worrying over how Santa would carry everything, wether his reindeer would get too tired or even if she would be forgotten (cheers for that one Peppa Pig!) The very mention of Santa was not exciting my child or making her suddenly want to be on the ‘nice list’, it was in fact causing her to stay awake at night worrying and making her jump every time the door bell rung.

I could not continue to see her so nervous and anxious over something that was meant to be a joyous and wonderful occasion.

3. The social expectations around Santa were all too much for her.

Ok so I know she never had to go and see Santa in his grotto anywhere but when he arrived at her school fair or party she found the whole social aspect very upsetting. Having spent years trying to get her to understand basic social rules such as we don’t talk to strangers and we certainly never sit on other people’s knees all of a sudden she watched in horror as every other child she knew broke all of these social rules just because the ‘stranger’ was dressed in a red suit. Her autism makes breaking any sort of rule horrifying and very distressing so Santa became linked with people doing very strange and confusing things indeed.

4. Her defensiveness and love for her brother was more important that any belief in Santa.

This was the crux for me and the reason I found myself sitting with my daughter on her bed while she cried begging me to tell her Santa was not real. You see my daughter has a brother who has complex needs. He can not speak and has a long list of diagnosis. Part of that means he often has very challenging behaviour for medical and developmental reasons. Her brother had just had a very difficult weekend where he had caused hundreds of pounds of damage to things in the house. He had killed her full tank of tropical fish by pouring bubble bath into the water, yet she still loved him fiercely. So when someone heard about her brother’s behaviour and happened to tell her he would be on Santa’s naughty list and would not get anything for Christmas she hated Santa more than she has ever hated anyone ever before.

So I had to tell her.

Telling my young daughter there is no such person as Santa has been the most magical thing I could have done for her. All of a sudden everything now makes sense to her. She can now reason in her mind how ‘santa’ can be in the shopping centre, the local school and somehow in the North Pole at the same time. She realised that the chimney stuff is all a story and there is no need to fear a stranger coming in her house while she is asleep. She understands why children suddenly want to sit on someone’s knee and tell them what they want for Christmas because the man in red is actually not a stranger to them at all. But most importantly of all she knows without a doubt that her brother will have gifts this year regardless of how challenging and difficult his behaviour can be.

I actually wish I had told her there is no such person as Santa earlier. Now she knows Santa is all made up she is happier and more excited about Christmas than she has ever been before.

She knows she is getting presents, she knows who buys them and she knows how we get them.

For some children with autism the magic of Christmas is actually in finally finding out Santa is not real at all.

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What if you can’t be Santa to your children?

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I wandered into the shop happily but walked out with silent tears.The music played ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ and it was just too much. What do you do if Santa Claus can’t come to your town? What if you DON’T want it to be Christmas every day?

What if you can’t be ‘Santa’ to your children?

I am not sure at what age it dawned on me that all those years of having gifts from ‘Santa’ were in actual fact from my parents, but once you know things change. For some it becomes anger that they were lied to, for others disappointment that life is not quite as fairy tale as they would like it to be, and for some it brings a greater respect for their parents as they realise how much they sacrificed to make them happy growing up.

Then you become a parent yourself and this whole ‘Santa’ thing becomes something altogether different. I must admit I have never made a huge thing of it to my own two children but somehow it just seemed the ‘done’ thing that even on their first Christmas (when they were in actual fact just seven weeks old!) they had something from that man in red.

And so it continued year after year with little thought or reflection. No-one wants to have the only kid who got nothing from ‘Santa’. Friends, family and even strangers spent the last week of the year asking children ‘what did you get from Santa?’ Parents smile smugly as children rhyme off expensive gifts and the entire contents of Christmas stockings to anyone who will listen.

I want my children to be able to do that. I want my children to be happy. But this year I can’t be Santa to them.

Now before you get all upset and feel sorry for my children this is not what this post is about at all. My children are blessed. They are happy, warm, loved and have an abundance of toys and games. They haven’t asked for anything hugely expensive this year nor have they demanded something that is out of stock the world over.

In actual fact they haven’t asked for anything because one is non verbal, they both have autism, and one has significant learning difficulties and developmental delay.

What if you can’t be ‘Santa’ to your children because they have no list yet again this year, they have no desire for toys or games and no idea what Christmas is about?

They would be happy watching glittering lights sparkle sitting on your knee or looking at a book together. They gain value more from the touch of your hand in theirs than a pile of neatly wrapped presents from a stranger who apparently came down the chimney during that night.

I can’t be Santa to my children because they have no concept of him. Sometimes that brings silent tears to my eyes when the world is full of parents rushing about checking off lists and hoping and checking for new stock online so as not to disappoint their child.

My silent tears are not for me though. They are in fact for those very parents, who like so many before them, are desperate to be the best Santa their child could dream of.

I am so incredibly blessed. I am so infinitely content. I can’t be Santa to my children but I get to be mum to them instead. I get to read the real Christmas story to them while they happily gaze at those twinkling lights; I get to sing carols to them while they smile up at me; I get to hear their laughter and joy all the time thankful for their health and happiness for another year. Those are things Santa could never bring.

Parents, enjoy being Santa to your children this year but never forget that your gift of time with your children and your love are things that may not be on your child’s Christmas list this year but those are the things they will remember much longer than any toys or electronics.

We can’t always be Santa and give our children everything in life they desire but that is OK. Opening up the latest ‘must have’ toy may bring immediate smiles but lasting joy and contentment comes from parents who provide all year round not just on 25th December.

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My Christmas miracles

imageI believe in miracles.

But the reality and daily grind of life can shatter that belief until it feels like miracles only happen to others. Then I witness a moment; a tiny fraction of time, and that belief is restored once again. Those moments often happen when we least expect it and in the normal everyday occurrences, so we need to be watching and waiting and believing. Sadly too often I am overwhelmed, exhausted and so busy I almost miss those moments of beauty right in front of my eyes.

This last week though I have noticed two miracles with my son. Nothing huge like starting to speak, or new physical skills like kicking a ball or jumping (stuff other seven year olds do without even thinking!) or even independence skills like showering himself.

No to most parents of seven year olds my miracles would seem trivial indeed; unmentionable, so run of the mill they would be taken for granted.

But one thing that happens when you parent a child with additional needs is that you learn NEVER to take anything for granted!

I had taken the children to a Christmas party. The fact we even got inside the door could be classed by some as a miracle. The fact my son was no longer wearing his red school jumper this year (he wore nothing but his school jumper for two years everyday) could easily be noted as a miracle. In many ways that was something I never thought I would ever see. The fact he climbed onto the bouncy castle and enjoyed the vibrations while everyone else jumped was amazing. These are all massive achievements for my son. He never joined in dancing or games and wandered around very much still in his own little world. But that was ok.

He ate when the food was offered and he never had a meltdown or attacked anyone and he was smiling and happy. I could end here as these are all massive achievements for us.

The Santa came.

He has no idea who Santa is. He has no concept of Christmas. So I just held him on my knee while the other children got excited and waited eagerly for Santa to give them a gift. He moaned and squirmed a little with being held but seemed to watch in his own little way. As an adult I knew at some point his name would be called. But how would he know that?

“Isaac” said Father Christmas with his usual smile and excitement.

I was just about to take my sons hand and drag him up. But before I could move he stood, he looked right at that man in red and he walked right up to him, took his gift and brought it right back for me to open!

imageHe responded to his name! He took a present from Santa! He watched others and figured out what was expected!! I am so overcome with pride about those things.

Not that long ago he had no idea what his name was. He would not go anywhere he had not already been to before. He never watched other children. He would not have had any idea what a present was, especially if it was wrapped.

But this weekend I had my Christmas miracle.

And later this week I have another one too. He is only going to be Joseph in his school nativity play! He is part of it! He has a role! And to whatever degree he understands he will be acting out that role. It is what seven year olds do. But something I never dreamed I would see.

In case you did not know, my son has classic autism. He is still wearing nappies and unable to speak. He has Neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that can cause learning difficulties and delay. He can not read or write or count. He can not dress himself. He is very much in his own world. I worry what the future holds for him, and the many hundreds of others like him in this world.

But miracles happen all the time. And this Christmas they have happened to me.

Keep looking and one may just happen to you too.

I just wiped a tear away…

You’re not meant to cry when your kid sees Santa right? It shouldn’t be emotional when he asks them a question and they actually answer him, especially when your child is 5.

But Naomi has met Santa this year. Every other year she has cried. She has huge anxiety and finds speaking in public, especially to strangers, incredibly traumatic. She doesn’t always answer you when you speak to her, and when she does it isn’t always an appropriate answer. I was therefore very surprised as we walked past a Santa’s grotto in late Novemeber and she asked if she could see him. While her brother sat in his buggy screaming at his parents having the cheek to bring his buggy to a standstill, Naomi and I went in.

Hello Naomi, good to see you today. And what would you like for Christmas this year?”

A toothbrush please!”

He gave her a plastic toy pizza but she was happy at that. I’m not sure if it was relief, a touch of embarrassment at her answer or pride that she spoke to a stranger and went into a dark grotto…but I just wiped a tear away.

santa She has met Santa a few time now. This was at a party for children with autism at a local soft play centre. She was asking Santa this time for a second selection box ‘because my brother had to leave and he can’t speak.’

She might have autism but the love and care she has for her brother melts me.

There was no way in the world Santa wasn’t going to give that sweet girl a second selection box.

She got off his knee and said ‘mummy this one is for Isaac. I know he will love it. But he would not love Santa so I got one for him.’

I think I actually saw Santa wipe a tear away too.

But it is ok to cry at your child’s nativity play, right? Well I did anyway. At both. Naomi was the most beautiful angel I have ever seen in my life. Even though we were sat right at the front row where she could see us clearly, the anxiety was written all over her face. As the room became more and more crowded and noisy I could see she was struggling. But she held it together. Her mouth opened along with the songs but no noise came out. Not even a whisper. Too many people. Too much anxiety. All too overwhelming. When the angels went up for thier little part she needed support to negotiate through the younger seated children. And support to return to her seat again. The tears were ready to fall when one of the other angels sat on the seat she was previously sat on. That lost look on her face and feeling of so much stress. Thankfully I was close enough to show her the empty seat right in front of me that in her panic she hadn’t been able to see. She had been upset that she didn’t have a speaking part, even though she doesn’t speak in nursery. Nursery knew she wouldn’t manage it. And so did I. I was proud she had got this far. Proud to see her with so many others. Proud she was dressed up and trying to sing along even if her voice could not quite bring the words out she so desperately wanted it too. So I watched my little angel…and I just wiped a tear away.

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Isaac was in a nativity play for his first time ever. This time last year he was too ill to be part of anything. The year before that he wasn’t even walking. His only part in this years show was to be part of the choir. That did tickle my humour when he is non verbal and not even signing. But he was included and that means everything. He required a memeber of staff on either side of him and a ball of scrunched up tissue paper to distract him and keep him seated but he was there. And what better outfit for him than to get to wear his beloved red school jumper. What a truly humbling experience to see children confined to wheelchairs, coping with daily medical and developmental struggles, many of them non verbal, taking part in a school show to celebrate the birth of a special baby. Isaac saw us and smiled. He saw his twin and pointed. That to me was incredible. And once more I just wiped a tear away..

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At his school party he actually allowed the staff to change him into his party clothes and take off his school jumper. And today I got to watch him request his snack using photos. For all his sleepless nights, screaming, loss of the only word he had, annoying habits like tipping boxes of toys on the floor then walking away…for all that and more, he is forgiven instantly because I am so incredibly proud of this boy.

His picture is proudly presented on the walls of the school. But he, of course, could never tell me that. The school didn’t allow cameras in to the school show today but I was allowed to photgraph this on the wall. A celebration of achievement. A Head Teachers award no less:

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Christmas time always makes me that little bit more emotional. Children’s faces when they see they have presents they only ever dreamed of (in Isaac’s case a new unchewed jumper of course!), little voices singing classics like away in a manger, recieving unexpected gifts that show that someone cares, time with family that we never seem to see as often as we should, and food bought and cooked with others in mind. The season of giving and celebration.

It is so easy to get caught up in the pressure of buying and cooking and wanting to please everyone. The desire for it all to be special. But in it all just enjoy those moments of seeing a child smile, hearing a little voice sing and in celebrating what has been achieved this last year.

In the year that saw my baby boy start school, my daughter diagnosed with autism, my son diagnosed as vision impaired and endless form filling and meetings I am choosing to remember those special moments of achievement. While wiping a tear away with pride.