By Guest Blogger Jessie Tucker Mitchell
Some people are obsessed with Halloween, with candy, trick-or-treating, and costume parties; others adore Easter and its promise of springtime and warm weather. But my family? We love Christmas. We might not have the most impressively decorated house in the neighborhood, and I still haven’t gotten around to buying a giant red Rudolph nose to attach to the front of my car (I love those things…), but we always have celebrated in our own way: a tree with dozens of homemade ornaments, an Elf on the Shelf, tacky sweaters pulled out of storage, peaceful family gatherings, and lots and lots of presents. I have about four dozen rolls of brightly colored wrapping paper in my attic, countless photo cards to stamp and address, and kids who have memorized every word to Polar Express because we’ve been watching it since July. Christmas? We are Experts.
The first few years of Fletcher’s life, though, were less about celebrating the holidays than about finding ways to keep him calm. As a preschooler with autism, he had a very literal view of the world; he thrived on routine and panicked over the smallest changes, and he did not understand why his older siblings and parents turned into different, unpredictable people at the beginning of December. Imagine seeing everything through his eyes: His family has cranked up the radio to unfamiliar music, rearranged the living room furniture, set up a lighted tree, invited strangers over to visit, taken him out of his well-structured school for two weeks, and expected him to go to plays, musicals, and gatherings with strange faces and really weird food when all he wants is to stay home and play with trains. It took my husband and me numerous attempts at normal activities, and several long conversations during which we debated the pros and cons of even the smallest event, before we realized our family just could not “do normal” anymore.
At first, this realization was hard to accept. I watched other little boys at church practicing the parts of Joseph and the Three Wise Men and wished my little boy could be with them, singing and giggling, rather than clinging to me, sobbing miserably and desperate to go home. I saw how it annoyed my older children to leave a party early because their brother was having a meltdown, overwhelmed by the frantic activity from the other party-goers. I turned down invitations to family get-togethers, knowing it annoyed some people when I backed out at the last minute, but also knowing I needed to do what was best for my son if he was having an emotional day (which he usually was). The noises, lights, bustling activity – everything worked together to drain him, and I was left with a child who had given up trying to cope and instead was crying out for a way to escape a world where he did not seem to have his own place.
So my family found our own ways to celebrate. Rather than try to attend every single event during the holiday season, we started to pick and choose, and either my husband or I were ready to rush Fletcher to a quiet nearby spot if he needed it – and he often did. And although we gradually lost touch with some really nice people, we also created strong bonds with someone even more important: our son. After all those months when he struggled to speak to us, and we struggled to make him understand what we were saying, we found ways to communicate on a more basic level. Whether Fletcher was having an anxiety attack caused by overstimulation, or a flare-up in his obsessive-compulsive behavior because everything else seemed out of control, there was no better way to communicate than by pulling him into my lap in a dimly lit room, the sounds of a party muffled behind closed doors, and singing songs with words he did not understand, but with meanings that he did.
And the meanings were always the same: You are special, Fletcher. You matter to me. I want to celebrate with you. And I am so thankful that you taught me the greatest lesson of the holidays: It’s not the giving or getting that matters; it’s who you love along the way.