Last year at this time, I was so nervous. This was not just my son Michael’s first holiday concert at ‘big boy’ school, but the first year he really began to understand and put together all the traditions of the holiday season. Would he be nervous at the big Santa breakfast in the gym? Would he sit on Santa’s lap or run away screaming? At least he would be in his pajamas so he would be comfortable, I remember thinking.
You see, Michael has autism, and though he is considered high functioning and very verbal, the break in routine, the crazy pacing, and all the junk food, generally made him a little nervous and overwhelmed in the past. He has come a long way since his diagnosis at three and a half, and enjoys most of the holiday traditions with us now, including attending church, but this was a biggie, sitting on Santa’s lap, and I would be there to see it all.
As part of the Parent Committee of Summit School, a school for special needs children like my son, we were in charge of organizing the breakfast, and then making sure Santa had gifts for all the elementary age children who took part. Each child from every class would sit on Santa’s lap. The teachers would take pictures, and then the child would get their gift from Santa.
It didn’t start off so well.
Michael was a little overwhelmed by the noise, and did not want to eat the gargantuan breakfast on the table in front of him. That part was my fault though, as I had insisted he eat breakfast at home, not really believing there would be as much food as there was or that he would be inclined to eat due to nerves. Pancakes, cereal, fruit were plentiful, along with juice, milk and even chocolate milk. Then he spotted me and the teachers were none too happy because he was crying and being clingy. It was only when I got close enough to hear him clearly that I realized he had been trying to get a teacher’s attention to show him where the bathroom was. Once I pointed that out to someone, he calmed down and went with her.
After he came back, he was telling me he was thirsty so another teacher got him some water. When I saw now that his main needs had been met, I quietly removed myself from his sight so that I wouldn’t be in the way. It was then that I got my first glimpse of how far Michael had come. When the breakfast was over, the teachers got all the kids to sit in a circle on the floor (each class on their side of the gym), and the music teacher began playing on her guitar. The volunteers were treated to the children singing carols.
It was great.
Then it was time for all the kids to line up class by class to sit on Santa’s lap. I held my breath and hid behind my friend, who agreed to take a picture of Michael with Santa. I was afraid that if he saw me, he would run to me and not want to try. In the past, the only way I was able to get him anywhere near Santa, was if I sat on Santa’s lap with Michael on my lap. Even then, he would sit on my lap and cry.
Well, the moment finally arrived and up he went on Santa’s lap with a big smile on his face and thanked Santa for his present. I’ll never forget the moment of pride and excitement when I saw him sitting there like any other child would enjoying his magical moment with Santa.
After that the rest of the morning passed in a blur of children laughing, singing, and being kids, because really, even with their differences, in the end all children are alike in their innocence and love of the spirit at this special time of year.
As I was thinking these thoughts, I happened to look over at the corner where Michael’s class was. It was then that I saw them, Michael and his best friend, Jeremy, dancing in a very unique way that only children with autism can. They were rocking forward and back with their legs, almost like they were on a rocking horse. The first time I saw Michael doing as a toddler, I thought to myself how original he was, not knowing what lay behind that movement. Later when I found out that it was part of the disorder he would have for life, it was a very discouraging thought indeed. But watching Michael move like that now along with his friend, I saw the beauty in it for the first time, and how far I had come in truly accepting Michael for who he is.
I had finally made my peace with everything and was seeing what another friend had once told me. “Autism is a gift in an unusual package.”
Those words had proved correct so many times. Michael’s memory for remembering people, events, his quirky sense of humor and way of seeing the world, are all a part of this disorder as well as the challenges he faces on a daily basis. He is unique and I wouldn’t want him to be any different than he is now. So this year as we are approaching another breakfast with Santa, I am eager and excited to be a part of it again, and hopefully catch a glimpse of the magic that is for children of all abilities.
But most importantly, I can’t wait to see Michael dancing.