Monday, 19 December 2016
My autistic son and the Christmas Tree upset
It's a fine line between enabling our autistic kids to enjoy different things and not making a change that causes stress and anxiety. This year we didn't put up the fake tree we've had since we first had the kids over nine years ago. Instead I had a heart-breaking and the heart-warming experience that came with getting our first real Christmas Tree.
We've pretty much had the same Christmas decorations since we got married. We got our beloved Beagle (who passed away this summer) that year and I had my first of three Christmas' since then pregnant. With a dog and little kids the fake tree seemed an obvious choice.
As time past, the boys were diagnosed with autism and keeping things the same was important. Anthony, our eldest really didn't cope well with change. So each year we put up the same tree and I went and got a few very similar or replacement decorations and that was it.
This year, as every year, we've been working on dealing with change and new things. We thought about whether the kids could cope and went for it - we'd get a new tree, a real one, together.
Anthony was mostly concerned about the timing of the tree going up and once convinced that the day was OK, was fine with things being different.
David is nearly six. As his communication is limited to single syllables and Makaton sign language for simple requests, the most we could do was say and sign 'Christmas Tree' and see how he got on.
We all piled into the car and went to our local park where Pines & Needles were selling Christmas Trees on the weekends before Christmas. We picked the tree and my husband watched in awe as it was 'socked'. We had originally thought about getting it delivered. But now it was in our hands, we figured it would fit in the car with a bit a juggling. It would also link the activity for the kids.
And that's when everything fell apart.
As we re-arranged the seats and started putting the tree in the car, David started signing 'no', then started furiously jumping and crying. 'Nah nah' he screamed through a tear ridden face. Let me assure you this is no ordinary tantrum. It was a meltdown. He was petrified by something and couldn't cope with it.
While I desperately tried to keep him safe in a very crowded car park we tried to figure out what was up setting him.
Sometimes David's not sure about us taking things home. Toys at playgroups and school stay at playgroups and school. We have great difficulty in toy shopping because David thinks the toys should be left.
"Maybe he doesn't think it should come home?" I said, to my other half.
I tried to help him calm down. My husband picked him up and turned him away from the scene and squeezed him firmly, to give him feedback and try and help him release his stiff screaming body.
I signed and spoke to him, 'Christmas Tree, our house', but every time I did it sent him into another cycle of kicking and screaming. It's so hard to see your child like this. We thought my husband might have to take the tree home with two of the kids and come back for us.
Just when we were thinking we could go back and try the delivery service, David seemed to calm down enough to strap onto his car seat. He was still crying and saying 'nah nah' repeatedly, as I crawled over him into the tiny middle seat where I was slightly squashed by the tree.
Then David calmed. It's always strange to see him like this, post meltdown. His face goes blank but there is always a tear or two stuck to his cheek like little reminders of what's just happened.
We pulled away and then my husband said, "Maybe it's because we had to put your seat down."
He'd hit the nail on the head. David had thought I was go by to be left. It wasn't that he didn't want the tree, it was that he thought taking the tree, meant leaving me. Now I was going home as part of the family, now we were all together again, everything was OK again.
The tree went up with mostly joy and little trauma. We even got new baubles and decorations, many in Anthony's favourite colour - red. I prepared Anthony and Jane for the idea that David might want to inspect the new decorations. Which he did. They were taken off the tree, inspected and gently returned.
It's a busy time of year, but I think we've learned not to assume that it's something Christmas related that's causing all the stress. Christmas is more likely to heighten the stress levels in our kids, but it's the basic things that they've always been concerned about that we need to remember too.
We now have a beautiful real tree. And looking back if the only thing that upset David was not being sure if his family was together, then what could be more Christmasy than that.