Autism

Autism Means Never Having To Downplay Christmas

For a long time my feelings about Christmas fell into the pleasantly ambivalent category. Sure, I might become slightly irritated when a national retailer had the nerve to run holiday commercials before Thanksgiving, and the whole tipping thing stressed me out. Mostly, though, I just enjoyed the influx of treats at the office and the general glitteriness of the city.

Recently the holiday season has become trickier.

“I’m a Jewish people so I don’t have Christmas,” Zachary, my almost 5-year-old said matter-of-factly the other day while looking at a promo for a story called My Special Christmas Adventure on the back page of his Spiderman book.

“Yup,” I replied, relieved he was making a statement as opposed to asking a question I might have trouble answering.

“Why can’t we decorate our house like Aida and Violet did?”

Crap. It was time for another thoughtful, carefully-worded spiel—the kind that doesn’t make Christmas and the people who celebrate it seem so foreign, so other, but one that also doesn’t make it seem like we Jews get shafted.

Naturally, I changed the subject. (Turns out Zachary is more concerned about how Peter Parker is Spiderman than he is about our unlit, wreathless front porch. Phew.)

You’d think I’d have this down by now—my other son is two and a half years older than Zachary. But while we’ve faced many challenges in the course of raising Benjamin, who has autism, making him feel okay about not getting a visit from Santa has not been one of them.

Don’t get me wrong—Benjamin is definitely interested in Christmas. But with him there’s no need for nuanced explanations, and not really because his lack of expressive language means he can’t ask questions.

I believe Benjamin’s appreciation of the holiday is an entirely visual, sensory-oriented thing. He likes how the lights look and how the scrunchy tinsel and prickly pine needles feel. And because of his social deficits, he doesn’t care about what his peers are doing. In other words, while he’s happy to go next door to Aida and Violet’s house and check out their impressive tree, it doesn’t bother him that we don’t have one, too.

The other day, on a neighborhood walk, Benjamin stopped to admire an elaborately decorated row house. There were elves and reindeer and red velvet ribbons, but the piece de resistance was a faded, child-sized Santa riding a train. Before I could stop him, Benjamin opened the gate, letting himself into the tiny front garden.

“Train!” he said, jumping up and down.

I wish I could have let him hang out longer, wowing me with more (rarely produced) spontaneous comments, but he was technically trespassing. So I pried him off Santa and nudged him back onto the sidewalk. We walked on in silence, enjoying the general glitteriness of the city.

Jana Banin

Jana Banin is a freelance magazine writer and blogger. Her work has appeared in Parents, Time Out New York Kids, Ladies’ Home Journal, Parenting, Babytalk, Marie Claire, and other publications. Before writing mostly about little kids she wrote mostly about teenagers, working as an editor at both ym and Seventeen magazines. Jana lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three kids. She is currently writing a memoir about raising a child with autism.

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