MEMBERS ONLY: Our Autism Christmas Miracle

by Justin Rosario

When I was a child, my mother would take me to see The Nutcracker ballet during the holiday season. We would make gingerbread cookies and build a gingerbread house from scratch. We would open one present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Morning. It was all very Norman Rockwell and remains among my favorite childhood memories.

After the divorce, my mother’s death, and the estrangement from my father, Christmas wasn’t quite as much fun. And once I started working in retail, Christmas, in a word, sucked. Nothing drains the joy from the holidays like having to deal with the public from Black Friday on. During that time, I started dating my future wife and she began to drag me to her family’s Christmas events. This was even worse because while her father’s Christmas celebration (her parents were also divorced) was fine, her mother’s always felt extremely forced and unnatural. 

Somewhere along the line, despite having had custody of her kids, Deb’s mom had failed to build the bonds that hold a family together over time. Yet, she was trying desperately to create that Norman Rockwell feeling and failing year after year. Even after Deb and I had our own kids, Christmas felt like more of a chore than a festive holiday because of the forced and artificial nature of it all.

I’m Dreaming of an Autism Christmas

Jordan’s autism didn’t help, of course. Once he was of an age where a neurotypical kid would be excited about Christmas and Santa and presents, Jordan was completely tuned out. It’s not that he didn’t like getting toys, it’s that he had no interest in sitting with the family while we opened gifts. He wasn’t interested in opening his own gifts for that matter! He wanted to do his own thing and that was that.

By the time Jordan was 4, it was obvious his autism wouldn’t allow me to take him to see The Nutcracker. He just didn’t have the patience or attention span to do it and that hurt. Of all the many things autism took from us as a family, that one stung more than the others. After numerous years of Christmas being a drag, I had been looking forward to resurrecting that particular family tradition and passing it along. The same went for baking gingerbread cookies and building a gingerbread house. I love to bake but Jordan had zero interest in the messy fun of cooking and try as I might, I couldn’t pique his curiosity in the kitchen.

Another year went by and Anastasia, now 3, was all about Santa Claus and helping me make cookies while Jordan, 5, still didn’t really care. Anastasia helped hang the ornaments on the tree but every year, Jordan would put on maybe two before losing interest. It’s not like he disliked Christmas, it just didn’t mean anything to him no matter how much we talked it up.

The following year, I took Anastasia to see The Nutcracker and she was so excited to get dressed up and go out with Daddy that she wore herself out before the show even started. She promptly fell asleep halfway through. It was adorable. 

Even though she had snoozed away the time, Anastasia loved being at the ballet and wouldn’t stop talking about it for days. She was excited to go again the following year and that’s exactly what we did. Anastasia was also jazzed up about building and decorating a gingerbread house and making the cookies and we did that, too, this time with a tiny bit of an assist from Jordan. I was practically glowing.

Coming in from the cold

We have a funny dynamic at times in our family. Whereas in most families, the younger sibling sees the older one doing something and wants in, there are times where Jordan will see Anastasia doing something with me and decide he wants to participate. 

This is how I’ve gotten him to help us make the gingerbread dough: 

“Boy, Anastasia! We’re having sooooo much fun in here measuring out these ingredients and mixing them together!”

And sure enough, Jordan now wanders into the kitchen to help us make the dough, roll it out and cut out the cookies. He even helps stick on the candy decorations to the house, although we traveled to North Carolina and didn’t have the chance to make one this year.

Even better, Jordan was fully engaged in Christmas this year. He was mostly into last year but this year, for the first time ever, he was not only excited about Santa coming, he actually asked for something besides markers and crayons. Jordan’s autism presents itself in a way that limits his ability to express his needs and desires. He literally could not point to something he wanted on a shelf until he was almost two and a half years old because pointing was a way of expressing himself and his brain refused to let him do it. It’s not a matter of intelligence, Jordan struggles in school but it’s more than that, it’s a matter of overcoming roadblocks in his mind.

Understanding this, it was a big deal that this was the first year Jordan actually wanted…stuff. And he got it. He got the rubber duckies he asked for. He got the small electric drum kit he asked for. He got the sleeping bag he asked for. We doled out his list to the aunts and uncles and grandparents and for the very first time, we didn’t have to guess what kind of toys he might like. Ironically, everyone was so excited to get him something besides markers and crayons, we all forgot to buy him any markers or crayons.

C’est la vie. That’s what after-Christmas sales and late gifts are for.

Jordan sat with us, more or less patiently, the entire time we took turns opening gifts. He’s been learning to take turns in school and at home and his teachers are going to be thrilled to hear it’s paying off. He only got up twice when he thought he had no gifts left and sat back down when we told him he wasn’t done. He laughed and smiled and played with his toys and wrapped himself up in his sleeping bag. 

It was everything we’d hoped our family Christmas would be and Jordan was right there with us, autism and all. Now there was just one thing left: The aptly named Nutcracker.

Waltz of the Autism Flowers

Jordan can sit through some movies and live performances but not all. He tends to sit for the ones with lots of motion and singing and not so much for the ones with a lot of dialogue and less action. But a ballet exists in a weird twilight, all music and motion, zero singing or dialogue.

I’ve wanted to try taking Jordan for the last two years, since he was possibly developed enough to make it through. The problem was that we couldn’t afford to eat the tickets in the more than likely event that Deb or I ended up sitting in the lobby with Jordan while the other stayed inside with Anastasia to finish watching the show. Even the less expensive tickets run for $40-$50 around where we live. The times Jordan couldn’t sit through a movie cost us “only” $20 or so and has made us very cautious about which movies we take him to.

But a solution presented itself by accident while I was looking for tickets for Anastasia and I: A working stage rehearsal. The tickets were but $10 apiece. That was a price we would gladly take a gamble on. And so we did. 

We brought our friend Claudia and her daughter Lila with us and they sat with Debbie and Anastasia a few rows ahead of Jordan and I. We sat in the back to minimize any disruptions Jordan might cause. I was pleased to see that we weren’t the only special needs parents there. I counted at least three other people on the spectrum just on our side of the theater. I was also pleased no one gave any of us a hard time since our kids were naturally noisier than the average ballet attendee.

Debbie offered to sit with Jordan so I could sit with Anastasia since this was “my” family tradition but I told her it was fine; she’s never been able to go with Anastasia before and if Jordan never went again, I wanted her to have at least the one time. The same went with me sitting with Jordan. If Jordan only made it part of the way through, I wanted to spend it with him. It might be the only chance I’d ever have to share something that meant so much to me with my son.

But he made it! It wasn’t the best version I’d ever seen. The narrative was a complete mess, the choreography was mediocre in some parts, but the costumes were excellent and there was an odd extra intermission which gave Jordan a much-needed break. He only required a little bit of redirecting to keep him focused on the stage and he never got overwhelmed by the music or, because of the very small audience, the clapping. We sat through the entire ballet and he was smiling and laughing through most of it. The Nutcracker isn’t exactly giggle-inspiring but you know what? As long as he enjoyed it, I don’t care how he enjoyed it.

Holiday Cheer

We’re going to try again next year (still a working stage rehearsal) and this time we’ll all sit together. Anastasia was a little annoyed because this had always been “our” thing, just her and Daddy. But if we can all sit together as a family, I’m pretty sure she’ll get over that pretty quickly. The only thing better than spending an evening being fancy with Daddy is spending it being fancy with Daddy and Mommy. She’ll just have to put up with sharing it with her brother, too.

My hope is that every year that we go together will build that anticipation in Jordan, breaking through the barriers in his mind until The Nutcracker becomes an indispensable part of Christmas, like Santa and making gingerbread cookies. Autism has taken so much away from us that taking back anything, much less something as important as deeply personal family tradition, is the best gift we could possibly get for the holidays. 

One might, if one were inclined to believe in such things, almost call it a Christmas miracle.

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