Mom says neighbor’s Christmas display inspired breakthrough in daughter with autism: ‘It opened up my child’

A Florida mom says her neighbor’s spectacular Christmas display has resulted in a breakthrough for her 13-year-old daughter, who has autism — inspiring the typically nonverbal girl to speak unprompted for the first time.

Marisabel Figueroa of Mulberry, Fla. tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she has been taking her daughter, Kaitlyn DeJesus, to see neighbor Don Weaver’s decorated house — which features several thousand flashing lights set to music along with a giant Santa — since she was 3, the same year the girl was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Over the past decade, the festive lights and tunes have always sparked excitement in Kaitlyn, who dances and smiles during each visit.

DeJesus, 13, has visited the holiday display every year since she was 3. (Photo: Marisabel Figueroa)
DeJesus, 13, has visited the holiday display every year since she was 3. (Photo: Marisabel Figueroa)

But this year, Kaitlyn did more than dance — she spoke unprompted for the first time, pointing out her favorite scenes at the home she calls “the house of lights and music.”

“She can communicate verbally, but she can’t hold a conversation with you,” Figueroa explains. “She’ll speak when prompted to, but this was totally out of the blue.”

Though her verbal communication has in the past been limited to repeating information when prompted, Kaitlyn initiated speech for the first time as she called out the blue lights, snowmen and Santa decorations.

“This was the first time when she ... was vocal about what she’s seeing,” Figueroa says, adding that her daughter also started singing along to the music that plays.

Like many people with autism, routine is important to Kaitlyn. Come the holiday season, her routine is driven by “the house of lights and music.” Though Figueroa says she’s tried to recreate a festive environment herself — “We play the songs all the time, and I always go all out for Christmas; I always decorate the outside of the house to make sure that she has lights,” she says — her own home doesn’t have quite the same effect for Kaitlyn.

“She knows that Mr. Weaver’s house is the one that has the loud music and the lights,” the mom tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “She’ll play Christmas music the whole year and patiently wait for Thanksgiving when she knows he’s about to set them up.”

Weaver, she says, will give the family a heads up when he’s ready to test out his lights for the first time, allowing Kaitlyn to come over for a sneak peek and be a “bit of a helper.”

During the holidays, Kaitlyn will wait for it to get dark, around 6pm, then head over to watch the show and dance and sing along to her favorite songs on the playlist. After a few loops, Figueroa will take her home — though they’ll be back the next night.

Figueroa notes that Kaitlyn’s response to the holiday show is not necessarily typical for an individual with autism. In fact, sensory-friendly holiday events have cropped up as an alternative for those with autism who may be sensitive to loud noises and bright or blinking lights.

“Some of them have a lot of sensory issues, but for some reason ... the music and lights do not seem to bother her at all,” she says.

“You would think the loud music from the Christmas display would bother her — no. You would think that the lights would bother her — no. Instead, it opened up my child and now I’m actually thinking of putting her in voice and singing lessons. I believe that could be her breakthrough to be vocal, because I need her to be vocal.”

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