It’s the middle of December and the Christmas season is well and truly under way. Families all over the world have put their trees up, decorated the house, and are getting ready to celebrate. This used to be, my favourite time of the year. The music, the films, the presents, the decorations and the parties, I loved it all.
Once I became a dad I thought it was going to be even better. I couldn’t wait to see Christmas through the eyes of a child again. All the excitement about Santa coming to visit our house. Watching the joy on their faces as they race down the stairs on Christmas morning to rip open their presents. Being surrounded by friends and family as we all come together to celebrate. December would always be a month filled with fun.
Instead, for the last 7 years, I’ve really struggled with this time of year. It’s become a time of very mixed emotions, and even though I want to, I’ve found it really hard to enjoy it
Autism has meant that Christmas as a parent has been nothing like what I expected it to be. This will be my 8th Christmas a dad, and throughout December I feel surrounded by the Christmases that we’ve never had.
Instead of being my favourite time of year I find myself battling against feelings of sadness, and jealousy.
Jealous of the Christmases that friends and family all seem to be enjoying with their children. Sad about the fun and excitement that my boys are missing out on.
Christmas can be a difficult time for anyone with autism. The change in routine, the sensory overload of the presents and the tree, and the increase in social occasions are but a few of the many triggers that can cause problems. It means December feels like a month full of events and traditions that we are just unable to take part in as a family.
Jude and Tommy have no comprehension of what Christmas is. For them December is just another month of the year, and the 25th is just another day. There’s no making a list for Santa, telling him what presents they would like. No concept of whether they’ve been naughty or nice.
There’s no trip to see Santa in his grotto. A queue full of other kids to get a present that they have no interest in is not their idea of fun.
There’s no going Christmas shopping to see all the lights. The crowds and sensory overload that would bring rules that out.
There’s no fun day decorating the house and putting up the Christmas tree together. Every year I do it by myself. Each ornament has to be non-breakable in case they are thrown or bounced. .
There’s no visiting family, or having large get-togethers. Jude and Tommy are comfortable in very few places, so going to see friends with their children is a no-no. Plus their carefully decorated house can be completely ruined within a matter of minutes.
There’s no Christmas movies. I couldn’t wait to sit down and introduce my boys to all of my old favourites, Santa Claus the movie, A Christmas Carol, Elf, the list goes on. Instead, the only Christmas programmes we get to enjoy have to involve Mickey Mouse or Special Agent Oso (for the 73,452nd time) If they’re not in it, they’re not interested.
There’s no day out to see a Christmas Panto. Sitting still for more than 2 minutes is impossible right now, without taking into account all the other sensory problems it would bring.
There’s no trip to Church to listen to a carol service, or for Christmas mass.
There’s no talk of Santa. No leaving food out for him on Christmas Eve. No trying to spot him out of the window, or listening for the sounds of sleigh bells in the night.
There’s no waking up in the middle of the night to the sounds of “Has he been?’ There’s every chance I’ll be woken up in the night, but it’s for the iPad, not for the presents.
No rushing downstairs in the morning full of excitement at the pile of presents that await them. No huge smiles on their faces as they rip the wrapping paper off and find the gift they’ve been hoping for.
On top of all that, and the thing that hurts the most at this time of the year, is the fact that we can’t even all be together. Jude finds it impossible to be around Tommy right now. I’ll have to spend Christmas morning with one of them, and the afternoon with the other. I’d trade everything about Christmas just for them to be able to spend time together and be happy.
So pretty much every picture and idea I had in my head of what my family Christmases would be like are yet to materialise. And I’ve struggled with that each year.
Every film, every advert, every song, every picture on Facebook or Instagram, all portray this perfect family Christmas that we’ve never been able to experience. I feel like I spend most of December constantly fighting back these feelings of jealousy, anger, and an overwhelming need to let it all out and cry.
The more I write about it the more I realise how pathetic I sound.
Who am I feeling sad for?
Who am I feeling jealous for?
Is it my boys? Or really is it just me?
The reality is neither Jude or Tommy understand what Christmas is so they have no idea what they are missing out on. All I’m managing to do is upset myself. They treat this time of year exactly how they do every other day of the year.
And now, when I look back, Christmas has actually got a little bit easier each year. I’ve learnt from what has gone well and what hasn’t and this year I’ll learn some more.
Now I know to wrap up Tommy’s presents and give them to him to open over 3 or 4 days. For Jude I’ll create a sensory box, that stays unwrapped. I’ll wrap a couple of small things to see if he wants to open them, but everything else I’ll just show to him one by one over the holidays. Their presents won’t be the latest toys that every 9 and 6-year old must have. Hopefully they’ll be ones they’ll enjoy.
If the weather’s good we’ll take advantage of the empty streets and go to the park in the morning. Then I’ll swap over whoever I’m with, and take them to my parent’s for Christmas dinner. They might not have the same dinner as us (although roast potatoes are now a favourite of both), and they might not sit at the table for long (if at all) but it will be our version of Christmas dinner.
For the rest of the day we’ll watch cartoons, make puzzles, and look at books. We’ll play on the iPad, bounce on the trampoline, and treat it like any other day off school. The only difference will be there might be more chocolate readily available, and some Christmas music in the background. If they have a happy day so will I
In time, maybe they will understand what Christmas is. Maybe we will get to watch festive movies together. Maybe we will have family get-togethers, and open lots of presents. But right now, that’s not what’s important.
My Christmas Day will be about doing whatever will make it memorable for them. My happy memories will be created by seeing a smile on their face. Whether that’s opening a present, or simply bouncing up and down on the bed, that’s what I’ll try to focus on.
I’m not going to pretend it’s going to be easy to just shut out the images that bombard us throughout December. I can’t say there won’t be times I look at other families enjoying their Christmas and secretly wish ours were the same. But I’m going to vow to do my best to overcome those feelings of jealousy and focus on enjoying Christmas instead.
I’ll focus on being thankful for what I do have rather than what I’m missing out on, two beautiful, healthy boys who I adore. Christmas and life might be different than I ever imagined, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate in our own way and make the best of it. We can make our own traditions, we can make our own version of Christmas. And as long as Tommy and Jude have a smile on their face then it will be a happy one.