Sunday, November 27, 2011

Trimming the Tree

Are we the only family celebrating Christmas who still buys a fresh tree every year? And, am I being politically incorrect to say that I'm excited to get our tree? I'm sorry, but I am excited. I adore having a big, fat, fresh tree in the middle of our family room, and I receive great joy from decorating it...well, sometimes.

I'll admit it, if I didn't have children, I'd live in a perfect house and turn out perfect meals that rival Martha Stewart's. I'd have a linen closet with ironed and starched linens, all monogrammed by hand. Every room would have fresh flowers from my many organic gardens which grow from my soil enriched from the year-round composting I produce from my organic kitchen waste. Oh, dear, have I digressed?

Christmas tree...oh, yes. In the early years of parenting, our Christmas tree was adorned with candy canes, home made gingerbread men and strung popcorn. Sigh, those trees looked so happy to me! I enjoyed its home made perfection and carried the theme onto matching garland around the room. However, the year our older son turned two, we discovered the reason he had constant diarrhea was because he was gluten and dairy intolerant. In the months before Christmas that year, we had also removed soy and corn from his diet. He was a busy child who was constantly putting everything in his mouth. Our traditional tree was no longer safe for him.

Frankly, I didn't know what what was safe for him. This kid was like a bull in a china shop! His hands were always into things, grabbing things, breaking things, eating things. I had no idea what I was going to do with the tree.

That first year after his diagnosis, I ended up just throwing some bows and strings of artificial cranberries on the tree and calling it a day. And, to be honest, he didn't even look at the tree. He was too busy dismantling the noisy Christmas train we had running beneath it.

The following year, we had that same noisy train running once more. Why did I not notice that it made his eyes wide with fear? And, above that train, I had the same bows and strands of cranberries, yet I had added more strands and also some strings of plastic popcorn I had found. Draped just so around the bows, the tree was starting to look festive once more, and I felt I was reclaiming my inner Martha Stewart.

This was the year our son decided that he didn't like dangling objects.

The string of bells on the door never stayed in place. Cute snowmen hanging on cabinet pulls were dismantled. That's when he first discovered that could not stand Christmas trees. EVERYTHING on Every Christmas tree dangled, after all.

The next logical extension of this? My strings of cranberries and popcorn never, ever stayed on the tree. At first, I thought it was cute, his tiny arms tugging at the long strand of popcorn until it was free from the tree's branches. I thought he was taking delight in the decorations, an interest in his holiday surroundings. Take THAT all you specialists! I don't recall Rain Man having the cognitive ability to celebrate holidays!

Boy did I feel stupid when I realize there was no celebration in his actions. Instead of delight, he yanked down any dangling object with razor sharp determination. I came to this understanding after picking up piles of discarded decorations for a couple weeks straight. It was clear, he definitely did not like hanging objects. They were unpredictable, and there was nothing more anxiety producing to this autistic child than the unpredictable. Oh well, I figured, there was our excitement for the year. Surely the next year he'll be past it.

However, the next year, he was not past it. And, to compound the problem was the fact that, at four, he had started preschool that year and was now celebrating the season outside of the home.

"Amy," I was approached by one of the classroom aides one day before the start of school, "he is taking the decorations off of the tree in the room."

"Yes," I said. "That seems to be one of his...things. He doesn't like dangling objects."

"Oh dear!" She said to me.

'Oh dear' is right! She didn't know the half of it! That season, down every school hallway, on every bulletin board and tiny Christmas tree, our son attempted to un-deck the halls. The Children's Museum. The Library. In all the malls-anything dangling was fair game. I spent that entire holiday season in a constant hot flash, running after that child and pulling him out of every display within reach.

The holiday decor in my own home more resembled debris from a disaster scene. I know what it looked like. It looked like I didn't know any better.

I think that is what has bothered me the most about this life. I DO know better. However when living under abnormal circumstances, I'm always going to come up short when judged by traditional standards.

Alas, out of necessity, I had to let my inner Martha Stewart go.

At home, when our son would tear down my decorations, I stopped trying to put them back up. I took it as a sign that my way of doing things was making him uncomfortable. And, this home is not just my home. It's his home as well. Just as I had to adjust to his father (lol!) when we married and began living together, we would have to do the same as our son grew and became more of a presence in the house.

Christmas is a terribly difficult time for our kids--the light, the sounds, so many people standing way too close and demanding, "Here! Here's a present!! Open it! Open it!"

Watching our older son cover his ears, shove his presents away and run out of the room has given me new perspective on the holiday. And, even in the less obvious lessons such as hanging objects, I've learned the profound lesson that what is fun for the masses is not fun for all. Family members with special needs need extra attention during this time of year so that they, too, can find delight in the season.

Perhaps I can channel my inner Martha this year--or one year soon--to find an autism-friendly way of creating the magic of the season in our home.

Here's to a calm, quiet and magical holiday season to you all!


  1. I say that you tinsel-up at least one vacuum cleaner.

  2. No dangling...that's a tough call. I am thinking there must be non-dangling ornaments that clip to the tree, rather than hang. Ribbons, birds, pine cones, ya know? Maybe if they didn't move he could enjoy them. Maybe run the string of plastic cranberries up and down the tree, kind of inside the branches, so they can't move? Or maybe it's the tree itself, the fact that it's not 'normal' in his surroundings and therefore, not welcome. Beth may have the answer, just decorate a vacuum with nothing HANGING freely!

  3. Many times in my life I've lived in apartments or houses that simply had no room for a tree. Would lay evergreen boughs on the windowsills or shelves. Of course, my inner Martha Stuart committed suicide many years ago. : - )

  4. thanks, amy, for stopping by my blog... i appreciate your kind words....
    i see you listed as an interest.. SLEEP... i hope you are getting what you need...
    thanks, too, for sharing your stories...

  5. That's a toughie. What about snowflakes on the windows? Would he take those (taped to the windows) as hanging?

    For the tree... the pinecones would be good. Just placed on te branchs and then tied so they don't move? You could paint them for different looks, and even add glitter! :) Look up Martha Stewarts "stars" to make out of paper and set them on branches. Or on other places.

    I understand how tough it is for you at this time of year. Just remember that YOU are just as important at this time of year as your children are. xx I quite like the idea of a silent calm holiday season too.