My Nonverbal Child With Autism Doesn't 'Get' Christmas, But We Go Big Anyway

Lilian Burns
·5 min read

I am the kind of person who puts up Christmas decorations in October. I do my holiday shopping in August, I burn pine-scented candles year-round; I even listened to Christmas carols while I was in labor to calm me down (iTunes shuffle for the weird, weird win). When I got pregnant, I dreamed of my kids running downstairs on Christmas morning — the excitement, the magic, reading holiday books curled up by the fire, and creating our own Christmas traditions. Matching pajamas? Yup. Holiday DIYs up the wazoo? Why yes, I did make those giant-ass snowflakes out of coat hangers.

When my son was diagnosed with nonverbal autism, though, that dream faded. I noticed that Christmas just…didn’t quite click for him. 

Unwrapping presents? Doesn’t care. Hanging stockings? Not interested. No Christmas book entices him, no holiday movie lasts more than two minutes before he shoves the remote back into my hands, wanting his usual favorite show. Christmas is just another Wednesday for my little man, and no matter how much I love Christmas, he could not care less. But even though he might not get it, we go big for the holidays anyway in my house. Here’s why.

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The reason the holidays are “the most wonderful time of the year” is because of the feeling — the magic. It doesn’t matter if Trip doesn’t understand the movies, the books, the presents, or the belief in Santa. It doesn’t matter if he can’t tell me what he “wants” for Christmas. There will be no elf on the shelf for me, what a pity (she said sarcastically). I don’t know the full capacity of what Trip understands, but I do know this: Trip likes sitting by a fire when it’s cold out. When he gets up in the middle of the night, like he does every night, the first thing he does is turn on the Christmas tree lights. I know that sledding is Trip’s definition of joy, and that getting family members together is comforting and makes him feel safe.

Trip may not comprehend the gifts/decorations/books/movies/ornaments/songs parts of Christmas, but he feels the essence of the holiday spirit. The things that I associate with Christmas? Those are just things. 

Trip also is incredibly empathetic. His preschool teacher sent me a video of him nonstop belly-laughing during Circle Time just because another student had started laughing first; when I read to him a book about a little girl who was stuck in a tree (for all of five seconds before a friendly bear helped her down) Trip was visibly upset that the girl was stuck. He kept pointing at her and wailing. Trip is happy when those around him are happy, and there’s just something about Christmas that makes me happy. And he knows that.

I recognize that the holidays are often stressful, and overwhelming, and the nights can end with a little bit too much spiked eggnog and family, er, banter. And while those feelings do crop up for me, most of the season, the holidays are a time of reflection, gratitude, and holding close what matters the most — loved ones — especially in this absolute disaster of a year. 

Honestly, it would be way less of a hassle for me to just ditch Christmas entirely, forget the decor, forget the lights, forget the tree. If it doesn’t matter to my kid, then what’s the point? Well, the point, for me, is that while Trip might not get it, he gets me. I’m his mom, and I love Christmas. And when I’m singing along to Christmas carols on the way to school dropoff, or strategically decorating only the top half of our tree (because Trip will chuck all of the ornaments off the bottom), he may think I’m a total weirdo, but he sees that I’m smiling. And that makes him smile. 

Maybe his words will come someday; maybe they won’t. Maybe he’ll always be confused by unwrapping gifts.

So no, I’m not holding my breath that Trip will ever run downstairs on Christmas morning, squealing that Santa ate the cookies we left out, or jumping up and down that his stocking is full. But I do love that material things don’t matter to him. Also, change seems to be the only dependable constant these days, so I am keeping an open mind to the fact that with this guy, anything can happen.

After all, Trip is going on five years old and has been nonverbal his entire life. He has only ever said the word “Go.” That’s it — that’s his only word.

But last Friday, his teacher was counting something. “One…” she said.

And out of nowhere, Trip said, “Two, three.”

Just like that. Clear as day. Completely nonchalant.

His class was shocked. The teacher got him to say it again and even sent me a video (I was at the doctor and started sobbing, completely terrifying my 80-year-old dermatologist).

The moral of the story? Change can happen at any moment, for better or worse — with any kids, but I think in particular kids with autism like Trip. And I still hold out hope that when Trip looks back on his childhood, he’ll remember the holidays fondly. Maybe his words will come someday; maybe they won’t. Maybe he’ll always be confused by unwrapping gifts; maybe he’ll come to be that person who very carefully undoes the tape, folds up the wrapping paper, and saves it for next year.

As for me, I will always remember this holiday season as the year Trip said “two, three.” The rest of it doesn’t matter.

Find the perfect gift for any kind of kid with these holiday picks from Costco

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