Kat Mills shares with vulnerability, how Christmas has had to change out of love for her autistic son.

Surviving Christmas

When I was growing up, the general rule of thumb was that there would be no mention of Christmas before Remembrance Day. Once we had paid our respects we could look forward to Christmas.

For my hubby, it was even later than that as his Dad's birthday was mid-December - the Christmas tree wasn't allowed out until after this event! So you can imagine my husband's reaction when he came back from work to see how I was doing when I was recovering from an operation in August to find I was watching a Christmas movie. As soon as I heard the front door open I knew I had been caught and as he walked in the room he could see a guilty look on my face as he glanced at the TV and shook his head. What can I say, The Movies 24 Channel does "Christmas in July" and being unwell, I had recorded several movies. I'm blaming the general anaesthetic and strong medication I was on!

I have friends who get so excited about Christmas that literally on Boxing Day they are already starting the next countdown. I will be honest, I have found it harder to cope with Christmas as I have got older and become the one buying gifts, organising different things, writing cards, and conducting choirs. There are so many things to do and remember that I can feel so stressed by the busy-ness of the season.

The last two Christmases have been especially difficult. Firstly, two years ago my Granddad passed away and we had the funeral on the 23rd of December. You can imagine that it's hard to feel festive, or to participate in any of the usual joyful celebrations. I remember being so glad when the New Year came, as how do you celebrate and sing with joy when your heart is hurting, and you're in mourning.

Last year, Christmas was challenging and difficult for a completely different reason. In the months running up to it, Dom, our son's, behaviour had become worrying and as soon as he started nursery sessions at school they flagged up some concerns. Being trained as a teacher, deep down I had suspected and felt that some of his behaviour and reactions were due to autistic traits, but my mummy heart kept pushing it down. I kept explaining it away and stopped even voicing this to my family. It was only when the teachers said they were concerned that I was able to voice my fears and the journey could begin.

Anyone who has been through this process to diagnosis a condition knows it is a long one, and really hard when you have accepted and come to terms with it, but other people need to hear the official diagnosis before accepting, or working with you. So by the time we got to Christmas last year I knew in my heart that he was autistic. My husband, Ali, was getting there, but wanted to get the confirmation from our health visitor and a paediatrician. The reality was that we were right at the beginning of the journey and it was very hard for those around us to get their heads around it. Christmas was not an easy time.

Surviving Christmas

When other people are focusing on the joy of the season, the parties, food and the music are all stress factors to those with autism. The disruption to normal service with changes in routine, music, food, and loud parties were not conducive to trying to build up Christmas and make it magical for him, as well as sharing the heart behind Christmas.

Whereas most people love Christmas music, I soon realised that this confused my son and he didn't like it. He liked hearing music he knew and was familiar with, so with space and the solar system being his current interest he wanted to dance around to Holst's Planet Suite, not carols. While the other children were sitting around the Christmas tree, ripping open presents and joyfully jumping around, Dom had retreated firmly into his world, needing his headphones and music to feel safe, somewhere far away - shouting when anyone came too near and not wanting to open presents. He didn't want to sit with the family at dinner time, was terrified of going in the car and screaming most of each journey to protest at the next disruption to his routine. We had wrestling and screaming matches when we mentioned coats or jumpers. It's so horrible and leaves you feeling helpless when your child is so scared, and there is not much you can do to help.

His autism diagnosis has been a precious gift as it has started to give us understanding, to help know how to best reach him, how to demystify the world around, and how to approach things like Christmas. I realise that it is okay that our Christmas will look very different, so I need to lay aside my expectations and memories to make it special for him.

Instead of shoe-horning him into our ideas of Christmas, we are finding new ways and creating new family traditions with healthy structures in place and visual stories to inform him of what is happening and helping him have some control, in a season that feels so out of control. All along we try to remember what is important and the heart of the Christmas story - we are celebrating that Jesus came as a baby to this world as the most precious gift possible. He lived to die, and then rose again from the dead to save us.

I am learning sometimes the best way forward is simplicity - getting back to the heart of things and stripping away the excesses and the untruths, not to get so caught up in traditions and patterns and materialism that we miss the beauty and extravagance of that perfect and beautiful gift, from God to the world, a gift that symbolises love, and joy, hope and restoration.

So as this Christmas approaches and your calendar fills up and you feel the pressures of the season I want to encourage you not to lose the meaning. Remember what we're celebrating, but be confident that it is okay if the way you celebrate might look different from others. Simple can also means stress-free! But behind it all is the story of God's amazing love, a love that is available to all if we simply choose to accept it. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.