“The best gift comes from the heart and not the store”
Those of you who have followed our story over the months may recall that we have found, when supporting someone who has Autism, complicated with other disabilities such as our son, change can create terrible anxieties. At this time of year, when Christmas adverts are promoted across TV and radio, and a trip down the high street reveals seasonal window displays, festive lighting, bands and other street artists, and crowds of people, all bringing their own cheer to us, spare a thought for those who find such things just a little too much for their senses and can develop serious anxieties and fears very quickly.
As someone who just loves the magic of this time of year, I have a need to see and experience as much of these things as I can and my wife and I just love it when our son can smile at what we all share together. To achieve this, we need to plan ahead, we have found that the secret is nothing more than a gradual introduction to the season, the events and the biblical meaning behind Christmas.
You may be surprised to hear that we visit garden centres a lot! They always put on super displays of decorations and lights. Publicity is sent to let us know the date and time of the “Christmas Opening” with music and wine and other fabulous enticements. For us, we visit weeks earlier, to see the gradual removal of pots and plants to make way for the glittering displays to come. To see the gradual transition allows are son to come to terms with the changes, we can talk about it, we can ‘peek’ behind the security curtains to see what is going on and we find he can accept the ultimate result far easier because it’s not sudden.
Likewise, a trip down the high street early enough to see the changes happening helps the transition to Christmas displays and acceptance without the fear.
I often get asked, “what do you mean, fear?” and “How can a changed display create fear?” etc and after nearly 31 years of understanding the effects these things have on our son, I suggest to them, that they imagine waking up in the morning and as they open the front door to go to work, or school or whatever they usually do, and instead of what they usually see, the driveway, the car, the street, is not there …. in their place is a vast ocean, no land in sight and to further image if they turn around to go back indoors and when they turn, their house has vanished and that ocean is there too … endless water, and nothing else. I ask “would you be disorientated and a little fearful as to what has happened?” invariably, they answer yes. This is something like how I have come to understand what our son feels when there is a change to his surroundings and environment. Of course, he doesn’t see the ocean, but flashing lights, decorations, displays which are all a different sight to him have that very same effect, creating disorientation and anxiety.
We take the same approach when we look for a gift for him. Surprises don’t work, in that, as they were unexpected, a sudden panic and anxiety attack takes hold and the enjoyment is not experienced. Worse, the gift is from that moment on associated with something stressful and never really appreciated. So we go out to the stores together, and I have to be very attentive to what he looks at, or talks about, as that will indicate a level of interest. Over several weeks we will return and talk about it some more and how we would use it, where we would keep in in our home and eventually we will make the purchase together. We wrap it up together and put it somewhere safe together and the surprise moves not from what will be unwrapped but more to a countdown of the days until it can be opened again. If you think that a countdown is not exciting, please think again!
In truth, it’s not so much what we buy, but the way we go about it, spending such quality time together, looking, talking, laughing and planning, and avoiding the build up of anxiety that is the real treat here. Our son now talks about what we did last Christmas in a positive way, and that too was all about a gradual supportive approach and he recalls those positive moments with joy. He’s looking forward to the trips to the garden centres, the Nativity displays, the Church services, the wrapping of gifts, the making of Christmas dinners, even the annual Queens speech.
We have done the same for our Christmas decorations at home. In putting them up, we work towards the first day of Advent, but not a date to put up our decorations, but a date by which time we have completed them. Our decorations, and one of our trees are being put in place, gradually throughout November so that again, any sudden change is avoided. This year, we are taking advantage of the new decking which is a visual point he can see from indoors as well, and a new pot grown tree has been introduced, that he has accepted and will become familiar with year round with anticipation and of solar lights being put on in a couple of weeks. After Christmas, this will be relocated in the garden and tended through the year and re-potted until we bring it back to the deck again next year.
Gifts are lovely to receive, but for some, its the reassuring company, the approach and the support that is the magic of Christmas. We are blessed with a number of friends, some we see, some are on-line, but equally valued and loved and who join us to make each day special for our son.
Thank you all 🙂