The Shadow Song of an Autism Christmas

Guest blog post for Awe in Autism

childhood16I loved Christmas as a kid. The excitement of gifts was a small part of it, but what I really liked was the music, the yummy family cookies, and the Christmas tree. There are so many fond memories of Christmas with family. My dad would string the hundreds of glistening, white lights and then we would decorate the tree together. Once we finished, or at least once we grew tired of the activity, we would retire to the kitchen with my grandmother, Bobbymom, to eat her yummy sugar cookies we called sandtarts. It really is a time of year filled with great memories.

As a child with a unique perspective on life, a perspective later named autism, I had my own quirks and issues to deal with at the holidays. Most everyone knows that I have music going on in my head all the time; songs that hear in everything I see which I call Shadow Songs. You can imagine that a phenomenon inside me that is triggered by what I see would be extra stimulated during the holiday season. It was much like having 10 radios on 10 different stations playing in my head at the same time.

To cope, I would play non-stop Christmas records like Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas Album, or the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer story I had on record. I even remember a part in Rudloph where a helicopter would land at the North Pole, which was a sound that scared me, so I would hide under my table until that part was over. My mother also had a fantastic collection of Christmas records that we enjoyed listening together. My favorite all time Christmas song from her collection was It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas by Johnny Mathis.

There were a few songs that frightened me, or really made me worry. I had difficulty understanding that the words to the songs were made up. If a song about Christmas was made, I assumed someone heard it like I hear music, and that they only spoke the truth. The first year I heard I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, I recall being very angry at Santa. That year, the visit to see a department store Santa was stirring up mixed feelings inside me. I know it took Santa a few minutes to get me to cough up a Christmas list that year. All I could think was, “You crummy weird man who kisses mommies!”

Though Santa wasn’t my only issue at Christmas. I couldn’t understand why some stuffy headed kid wanted a Hippopotamus. Was this the same kid that only wanted two front teeth last year? Furthermore, why was some guy named Jack biting your nose while you roasted chestnuts? Or why on earth would anyone want to put fleece on the dog (Feliz Navidad)? How was I supposed to know they were singing in Spanish?

Like every kid, I was driven crazy wondering what was in each gift wrapped box, even if it wasn’t for me. That curiosity was usually followed by the anxiety that there could be something awful in that box. What if I got itchy socks, or another one of those weird woven sweaters that I would have to try on and parade around the living room while everyone touched the arms of the sweater saying, “it’s so soft”? My grandfather, whom I called Bobbydad, was always ready with the perfect gift – cash. He would call us up one by one, and hand us one-dollar bills that equaled our current age, plus one to grow on. You always knew what you were getting from him, and exactly how much. It was the best part of the family gift exchange.

Christmas morning always brought the best feelings. I’d open my eyes, still unable to think or feel anything. Then, a feeling of exhilaration would build in the following 30 seconds between waking, and realizing it was Christmas morning. It was all under control now. I knew everyone would be tired from the festivities the night before, so they would be quiet and calm. I also knew exactly what to expect. We would get oranges in our stockings, open our gifts, and then spend the day in our fleece pajamas watching Christmas movies and playing with our new toys. But that wasn’t even my favorite part yet. Among the gentle clatter of ripping paper, and gasps of excitement, there would be a calm. In that calm, in that single moment of silence, while everyone pondered with smiles on their faces, a beautiful sound would play. Like a whisper from the warm glow of joy, I would get to hear the Christmas shadow song.

Even though I know there is the chaos that surrounds the holiday season, I surf through it on the wave of holiday music. I remain calm, and I smile, because I know I will be given a gift so pure and honest, made up of the collective energy of kindness and generosity. That moment that rises from the calm; the shadow song of an autism Christmas.

The New Millennium Christmas Carol

2011.  What seemed to be a mediocre financial start to a year slowly slipped into a year of bill juggling and involuntary fasting.  Not that different from a character out of a Charles Dickens novel, I began to feel like a societal outcast while the big bad banker living behind the iron fence made my life miserable.  Like many Americans, I have spent this past year struggling to make ends meet during the world wide financial famine.  I am self-employed as a music teacher, a single parent of two children and live well below the poverty line.  Because I live in a rental home in a middle class neighborhood, many are not able to see how much we struggle.  Many have this notion that poverty is strictly bound to homelessness or trailer parks, with the kids running around shoeless and filthy, even though this is not always so.  Some of us live in the shell of our former means; a silent poverty.  You see, before the fall, I was married, enrolled full time as a Psychology student and had access to medical benefits and an income ten times greater than what I make now.  I didn’t go out on a shopping spree or live foolishly above my means.  I, like many moms, relied on another for support.
As Christmas approached, a holiday I usually love, I became nauseated.  I lost many nights sleep worrying over not just gifts I wanted for my children, but meals and my car payment.  I was loosing students, many for reasons beyond their control.  To make matters worse, I was handed a lawsuit over a credit card I was unable to payoff, that was used to pay for car repair and the remainder of my daughter’s Tae Kwon Do contract.  The collection calls were now coming 5 to 6 times a day, trying to collect on an education I was never able to finish when the banks felt my separated status made me too big of a risk.  
My heart sunk as I struggled to understand what was happening to me.  So many times, people say that Christmas is not about the gifts but they truly miss the point.  My children live in a world where they are expected to accept the warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment when they succeed, but yet tolerate multi-layered punishments when they fail.  The world we have set up for them is so saturated in negative reinforcement that children hunger for smiles and contentment.  Christmas is the one time of year where children can enjoy benevolence and generosity for no real reason other than to celebrate every moment that they made a positive mark in their universe.  Yet this year, I feared we wouldn’t be able to have Christmas in our home.
I received a call from a local school that was somehow aware of our financial difficulties this year and offered help.  At first I turned them down.  I never wanted to be the type of person who relied on welfare checks or food stamps for support under the fear I would never come off of them, and I had so far managed to limp along without them.  Yet, once the stark realization hit me that I was beyond broke, I accepted the help.  They requested I give a list of wants and needs, so I asked for help with groceries.  I expected to get a few can goods if anything and hoped that would allow me to redirect funds I usually spend on groceries to gifts.  Any small token of help was projected to be a great relief.
I never expected what happened next.  The outpouring of help was astonishing.  Not only did we get help with groceries, but also with gifts.  Clothes, shoes and gift cards to various local shops came to us in abundance, but it didn’t end there. Friends picked up on my frustration began to help me in ways they could and I started receiving calls from local benevolent organizations and churches offering help.  The help I received was so amazing, that I found it necessary to turn the offers away instructing they send help to other families in need.  It felt so wonderful to say “I no longer need help because I have been given everything I need.”
This Christmas, the cupboards are full, there are gifts under the tree and all my monthly bills are paid up.  I know that come the start of the new year the collection calls will continue and I still have that pesky lawsuit to pay, but at least for the next two weeks, I can watch my children smile and glow in the light of generosity.  For this I send a humble, warm thank you to every stranger and every friend who felt our smiles were worth saving.
Merry Christmas.