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Secret Santa taught my son with autism this valuable lesson

This blog post is written by Heidi Cox, who lives in Washington State with her husband and three children.  She has been published on the MOPS website and in the anthology, Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World.

Three years ago:  It was a grappling hook.  A real, live, sharp, metal grappling hook.  For adults. That was my choice for my 5-year-old autistic son’s Christmas gift.  I showed my husband the picture on Amazon.  He was silent, I think, from shock.  Then, very calmly, he replied, “Um, babe. No.  No.  No Way.”  I was incensed!  This was the perfect gift.  My son, Ezra, had been obsessed with Batman for years, and loved to do anything outdoors.  I could imagine him heaving the grappling hook up into a tree, climbing to the top, and feeling victorious.

The bottom line is that Ezra has always been difficult to buy gifts for.  He recently asked me “Mommy, what do boys my age play with?”  This question epitomizes my son’s struggle.  He has a hard time with free play and imagining what to do with toys he receives.  At the same time, he yearns for excitement and entertainment at high levels.  The problem is, he doesn’t really know what that looks like.  Unfortunately, neither do I.  

Needless to say, the grappling hook didn’t pass the husband test (thankfully!).  Looking back now, I cannot believe I actually contemplated buying it. What was I thinking?  (Or drinking?!)  I was in such a panic to find something --  anything --  my son would enjoy and actually play with.  I admit I became a little loopy.  Strike one.

Two years ago:  “I hate it!” Ezra screamed, as he threw his gift across the room.  It was a few days before Christmas, and my son couldn’t control the impulse to find out what he was getting.  So he began frantically tearing off the wrapping paper on all his gifts.  All I could do was watch, in shock.  In tears, he tore open the other gifts threw them to the ground as well.  I had failed again to find something that would satisfy his desire for an exciting, tantalizing gift.  He was in a rage, I was doing my best to stay calm, and my other kids were so appalled that they simply stared, mouths open, and speechless.  Strike two.

Last year:  I decided to steal an idea from a children’s Christmas movie.  It was going to be our new tradition to foster relationships, giving, and simplicity.  To celebrate St. Nicholas Day, the five of us would pick a name of another family member.  Then we would become this person’s Secret Santa.  But the catch was that we couldn’t spend any money on this gift.  It had to be hand-made, or something we already had to pass along.  I knew this was going to be a big stretch for Ezra.  But as a mom, I have my own ideals.  I want my kids to cultivate a spirit of simplicity and selflessness.  So I took a leap of faith. My daughter picked Ezra’s name.  Since she was only five, I helped her decide what do to.  At the time, Ezra loved sweets, especially chocolate.  So we made him a humongous Hershey kiss.  My daughter was giddy with excitement as we melted the chocolate.  She imagined pure delight on Ezra’s face as he opened his gift.

The reality was, let’s say, a bit different.  When Ezra opened the package, he had clearly been expecting something else.  “I don’t like chocolate anymore,” he flatly stated.  Then he went over to the garbage can, opened the lid, and threw his gift away.  This put my daughter into tears, and, once again, I felt like a deflated bouncy house.  Strike three. 

How do I balance my ideals with my son’s ideals?  How do I not sacrifice my goals and intentions for my family, while at the same time having realistic expectations for his ability to enter into our family traditions?  I don’t have any clear answers.  But one thing I do, I keep slogging on.  I continue to grapple.  I can’t quit and I won’t give up.  Why?  Because my family is worth it.  Ezra is worth it.  And, in a lovely twist of grace, if I didn’t press on, I would have missed out on the home run we hit last week.

After last year’s debacle, I was nervous about this year’s Secret Santa gifts.  But in true, stubborn-mama style, I didn’t let that deter me.  We were going to foster giving and generosity if it killed us!  And the result was a surprising gift from God.  After picking names, Ezra became hyper-focused on being a Secret Santa to every single person in our family.  He spent many afternoons after school rummaging around his room, asking mysterious questions, and then emerging with a box all wrapped up.  His giving was contagious.  Soon all the kids were finding gifts for everyone -- special treasures and trinkets in their rooms that they imagined a sibling or parent would treasure. 

When we all finally sat down to open our presents, Ezra declared he wanted to open his present last.  He was so excited to give the gifts he had planned for each of us.  I opened a paper mache’ bowl he had made in art class, filled with tiny plastic animals.  To his siblings he gave special rocks, a bouncy ball, an old photograph, and a rainbow loom bracelet.  When it was his turn to open presents, Ezra acted as though these home-made, randomly chosen gifts were what he had been dreaming about his entire life:  a handful of rocks, a little glass basket, and a plastic sprig of holly.  He went around hugging and thanking each of us.

My husband and I were in shock. But this time, it was a good shock.  An amazed, grateful, delirious shock. All we could do was smile at each other.  This moment was the best Christmas gift we could have imagined.  My goal is no longer to have a perfect Christmas. Instead, I am on the lookout for surprising slivers of joy. So I will continue to cultivate grateful hearts, thankful spirits, and spontaneous giving. Because grappling for goodness is always worth the fight.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.