Christmas + Autism

christmas treeI’ve heard that the human body is unable to distinguish between fear and excitement. (I’m sure I learned that from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, so don’t quote me or use this information in any real-life situation).  Apparently the same physiological reactions occur in both situations and it’s our brain’s job to tell the body how to react – whether to be patient and positive (in response to excitement) or to get the hell out of Dodge (in response to anything else).

I remember one Christmas Eve (I think I was 11) when I was so excited I simply couldn’t get to sleep. The next morning, when I started throwing up, I discovered it was the flu that kept me up all night. But how was I to know? The butterflies in my stomach, the tossing and turning, and the longing for the night to end sure felt like the anticipation of every other Christmas Eve.

I have very distinct memories of the Christmases throughout my childhood, all of them peppered with feelings of anticipation and excitement. Advent calendars, family traditions, Christmas specials on television (that we had to wait for because VCRs and DVRs hadn’t been invented yet), all helped to pass the time. Although the waiting wasn’t always easy, it was definitely part of the fun.

For our oldest son, who’s on the Autism spectrum, the stretch from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve is a special kind of hell. Hidden presents and whispered plans, and Christmas wishes that may or may not come true, leave him tense and exhausted as he longs for facts and figures and full disclosure. At school, all the changes to his class schedule to accommodate parties, choir performances and trips to the “Santa shop” in the school library, keep him at high alert all day. And class parties are a recipe for disaster, with too much unstructured socializing and games of chance where the winner can’t be predicted (or, worse yet, is chosen based on popularity, like the “best decorated Christmas cookie” debacle of 2010).

To his credit, he has embraced the family traditions we’ve established for our little clan, but still rushes through them in a vain attempt at making this uncomfortable season pass more quickly. In the last few years, we’ve started telling him what some of his Christmas gifts are – especially if there’s a big gift involved that he’s really, really, really hoping he’ll get. I can literally feel some of his tension melt away when we do that, allowing him to rest in the known, before bracing himself for the next surprise.

In these hope-filled weeks of Advent, Christians get to rest in the known surprise of Christ’s birth. We anticipate and re-create the celebrations we’ve enjoyed for generations, because, for most of us, the familiar is what’s special about this time of year. For that reason, I’m hopeful that age and time will eventually help my oldest son find comfort and joy in the holidays – which should be easy, as long as we don’t wrap them up and hide them, and only bring them out on Christmas.


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