As I set out to write this post I decided to gather pictures to remember Christmases past. Now I sit in tears.
One of the first memories I found was of Johnny’s first Christmas. He was almost 11 months old.
In the video, I’m out of frame messing with the phone, trying to record every moment as his dad helps him open gifts surrounded by my family. Johnny doesn’t really notice a gift my husband encourages him to unwrap. Instead he playing with an ornament and keeps clapping with a straight face, and the whole family in turn says “yay’’. The gift is opened by my husband. It’s pajamas, Johnny barely acknowledges.
Upon Johnny’s next turn to open a gift the whole process repeats. More clapping and “yays”, the little sweet baby boy doesn’t even notice this gift. This time it was a toy, a truck. Nothing draws his attention to it. Not the pretty paper, not the unwrapping, not his dad encouraging him to look. I hear family members all saying things like “look” or “wow”. Looking for some reaction to the actual gift. He just claps.
At the time I of course would have loved for him to react. Loved for him to be excited, if not about the gift then about the process. At the same time, I didn’t think much of it. He was engaging by clapping, he was sitting with his dad, he was content.
He was just a baby.
Little did I know that was how it would stay for the next five years.
Watching that video now is so conflicting. I can’t see past what I didn’t realize at the time.
The next two years at almost two and three, the disinterest was still there and the expectation from others grew. As adults we put so much pressure on children to love our gifts. It’s of course meant in kindness and love. We want them to be happy. We want to see the joy on their faces when they open what we got them.
Johnny just did not care. I sat there amongst a pile of gifts, doing everything I could to get him to sit and open them. In the end it was me opening his presents and shoving them in front of him saying “look!” “wow, isn’t this so cool”. As the giver looked on I felt pressured. They wanted to see him love it.
Everytime nothing. Sometimes I would make excuses and try to explain, “he’ll play with them just not right now.” The look on their face always shows it. A look I’ve had many times. Disappointment. Some would even say things like “I guess he doesn’t care”. I felt awful.
The next year, 2018, came around and little sister was in the picture now. I thought this was the year he’d care, and I thought I knew how to make it better. I stayed up way too late on Christmas Eve and decorated our little space. I put lights everywhere, he loved lights, and set out all the little stuffed animals he had. I put santa hats and lights on them too.
I had a plan that we could open gifts as a little family first. Less people, less noise, less pressure. I could see the pity in my husband’s face that Christmas morning, as I had to beg Johnny to come into the room. I was pointing out every little detail. Looking for any sign of joy or excitement. He did slowly open a couple gifts that I had carefully picked out for him, being he had never asked for anything.
He opened them and did like them! He stared at them and examined them. After that he was done. That was all he was up for.
The rest of the day was back to me opening his gifts and explaining he will eventually play with the toys and read the books. The first gift opened was what he would carry around and that was that.
At this time we knew autism was a possibility. The next year we were positive.
So, at almost five not much changed for Johnny. He sat and opened more with help. My sister and I ended up opening a good amount of his gifts. I watched as my brother helped Johnny’s little sister, because I had to be with him to encourage him to stay and participate for a little bit.
What did change was us. We now knew to give him space. We knew that not everything had to be opened at that time.
I finally accepted that gifts were not his thing. Which is insanely great and beautiful, but we also want him to try to join us and participate in our joy. There is give and take and we are learning.
We let him stare at the train under the tree for hours. We went searching for lights on houses. He watched us decorate and he enjoyed the cookies (well frosting) the rest of us made while he ran around. He loved to move around the pieces of nativity and point out “Baby Jesus”.
Going into this year, he’s understanding more. He’s excited. Whenever it snows he says “Christmas day!” He knows who Santa is and that he brings presents. He actually pointed to a toy he saw online and said “Christmas”.
I do think this year will be different, but if it’s too much for him we are ready to make it the best day for him in his way.
On Christmas day, he’s going to get his present. If I have to unwrap it for him that’s okay. If he doesn’t play with it until everyone’s gone, also okay. If he opens it and does nothing else, that’s okay. Other things make him happy and I’m happy they do.