Many people in my life have been very understanding, but as always, there are a decent number of people that have left some lasting negative impacts. Some of those people I blame for their actions, and some of those people were just reacting to me and how my Autism appeared to them. But equally important to how I appeared to them was my Autism and how it has affected my view of Christmas throughout my life.
When I say that I was diagnosed with Autism in my 40s, that does not mean that I did not have Autism before that. It just means instead of “the weird guy with Autism”, I was just the “the weird guy”. And back when I was a kid, I definitely was “the weird kid”. Contrary to the modern definition of Autism, the definition of Autism when I was a kid was someone with below-average intellect who had severe problems interacting with the world. I did not have the benefit of any helpful labels and programs to help me succeed, such as the help that my son was able to get throughout his childhood. It was just me trying to figure things out as I went, often feeling alone and alien, wanting to fit in with my peers, but not knowing how to even start.
That is where my negative view of Christmas started, based on a strong dislike of what I perceived to be the over-commercialization of Christmas. As I have been trying to understand myself better over the years, it has been hard for me to disentangle two aspects of this dislike from each other.
The original reason that I disliked Christmas was indeed a selfish one: our family did not have enough growing up. My mom is one of the most important people in my life, and each year I saw her struggle throughout the year to make sure we had our basic necessities and whatever other reasonable things she could get for us. It pissed me off that my father was almost never in the picture. The thought of my mother having to ask our local church or food bank for help and for presents, either made me feel embarrassed and mad at the same time. With the kind heart that I know my mother has, I am pretty confident that she felt like she should have been a better mother, even though that was not in the cards. For me, even though my mom did everything for us out love for us, Christmas was a time when I always felt more negative emotions that positive ones.
And there is where the second aspect kicks in: my peers. I remember the feeling of dread that preceded going back to school after Christmas break. Each year, I would go back to school and everyone in the class would be bragging about the wonderful things they got for Christmas. While I tried to pass off the things I got as equally wonderful, my lack of social skills meant that I was unsuccessful, while my classmates would seemingly and convincingly go on and on about the fantastic things that they got. They all seemed to be bragging about how wonderful their lives and families were, and it hurt.
As that stuff was happening at school, there were also issues I had with how my extended family dealt with Christmas. I mean, at 11 years old, how could I explain to them that the music of Tchaikovsky appealed to me because of his use of harmony and melody? I just knew that I liked it and could get lost in that music for hours. So, when my mother asked what I wanted for Christmas from my extended family, I asked for a Tchaikovsky cassette tape. It was simple, it would not cost too much, and it was something that I would appreciate. Sounds logical, right?
I ended up asking for that single cassette tape of Tchaikovsky for three years straight. I would never dream of asking my mother for it, because she was having a hard enough time making sure we were cared for. But as a request for Christmas from my extended family, I was sure it was an easy request to fulfil. Not so. The first year, one of my older cousins gave me a Bart Simpson poster and a dancing beer can, because “they were sure that is what I meant to ask for”. The second year I did indeed get a cassette tape, but one with the works of Beethoven. When I asked about the cassette tape, I was asked “aren’t they the same?”. The third year, a year in which I remember one of my younger cousins being responsible for me in the gift exchange, I finally received a cassette tape of some of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. I did not find out who that cousin was, but I wish I did so I could have thanked them… I played that tape until it wore out.
But those experiences left a bitter mark on my mind regarding Christmas. Finding out more information about the gifts, I was able to figure out that the dancing beer can was supposed to be a gag gift or a good joke. The Beethoven tape? It was bought two months before my mother gave them my Christmas list. While it may not be the right information to gleam from those events, my Autistic mind analyzed the facts that I had gathered and came to a couple of conclusions.
The first conclusion was that my extended family did not care about each other. It was about a good joke with the whole family there, or something that was bought at a sale that they could pass off as good enough. It was not about love or understanding, it was about fulfilling a contract to present a gift. The second conclusion was that even though we were all good Catholics and went to mass in and around the holidays, most of that was all for show. One of the tenets that I learned growing up was:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Gospel of Luke, 6:31.
When my aunts and uncles asked each other for something for Christmas, I believe they almost always received what they asked for. How would they have felt if it took one of their siblings three years to get it right? I do not think they would have been happy. Furthermore, how would they have felt if they asked for something they really did need, and instead got a joke gift and had everyone laughing at them. How would they feel then?
To my recollection, none of my extended family asked me or my mother what was so important about Tchaikovsky that I would ask for it over a toy. I just know that it was not until I was in my 30s that one of my younger cousins asked. The reason? In a life where my Autistic mind was going the speed of thought, listening to those melodies and harmonies helped me find peace and calmness for a brief amount of time. I could lose myself in them and forget about how difficult that the world was for me to process.
As I grew older, I was able to start figuring out how these things impacted my life and how it colored my view of Christmas. My loving wife has asked me for the last ten years why I do not share her love of Christmas, and it is only recently that I have been able to sort out parts of it. It has been difficult to try and pull on all these threads to try and figure it out but undertaking that task has helped me find some peace with the subject. From those old threads of my Christmas experiences, I was able to gather some things that I would like to share.
As the years have passed, I have heard little bits of information here and there from my trips back home that lead me to believe that a lot of my classmates were not always as lucky as I was. It was with a lot of sadness that I found out what a lot of those classmates had to go through their own versions of hell in their own lives. For quite a few of them, those Christmas presents that they received were the only symbols of love that they received from their parents. For others, they felt a constant need to prove that they were better than others because their families never made them feel like they were good enough. I could go on with other things I have heard about classmates over the years, but the picture is pretty much the same. Every one of those people had different forces impacting them in their lives, and often, enough of them were negative and colored their perceptions.
Using the analytical part of my Autistic brain, I came to understand that their bragging about Christmas gifts were mostly cries for help, not joyous refrains. While I was upset with them growing up, regardless of their station in life I now hope that each and every one of them finds peace in their own way. I came to the realization that I was, and continue to be, lucky that I have always had a kind and caring mother in my life. She has always been there for me and never left me feeling that having only one parent in your life was not enough. While it should be more common, it is not, and that is sad.
To that extent, I believe that Christmas should not be based on a calendar, but on a state of mind. We should be helping people and making sure our children and each other are comfortable, loved, and respected. It should not be about making a special effort during Christmas to make time for each other and be patient with each other, it should be a normal occurrence in our daily lives. I am not sure if this makes me seem naïve or if it just the way that my Autistic mind works, but it is how I feel. I do not care if it is kind of mushy or idealistic. Can anyone really argue with me that showing each other a little more patience and respect would not be a positive thing in our chaotic world?
Another observation is that people are quick to point to the physical gifts that they received at Christmas, but do not always pay attention to the other gifts throughout the year. Even though we did not have enough growing up, I have the utmost confidence that I would not have made it to where I am today without my mother’s unconditional love. While she knew I was different from a young age, I never felt like I was a “weird kid” to her, just her oldest son, who needed love just as much as her other two kids.
Finally, different people experience things differently, and we must make our own efforts to understand people on their turf, not ours. As someone with Autism, I should not be expected to offer to explain myself and my Autism to people. But if someone were to ask me a question about how I perceive things and how they can help, I would definitely be open to that. I would like to think that if my relatives had asked me that question about Tchaikovsky and I answered honestly that they would either respect myself or my mother and help me find that 45 minutes of peace located on a well-worn cassette tape. I know I would gladly offer that gift to someone.
Even after finding peace with the subject, I am not sure that a “love” of Christmas is in the cards for me. I do know that in my own life, either inspired by my mother’s love or her teaching of “the Christmas spirit” to me, Christmas is just another day to me as I simply try and apply those “Christmastime” principles to my life daily. To be honest, I have no clue on whether it is my Autism or my upbringing that has got me to this place in my life, I just know that it is the path that I chose. And I feel good about that choice.
I guess you could say that it is my gift to those around me. My gift to myself? Letting go of some of those negative Christmas experiences each year. Allowing myself to forgive those people and hope that they find peace with their own person daemons. I am not a religious person by nature, but I do know that the many holy books, the Bible included, have some great verses. Here is one I try and live by:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.
Gospel of John, 13:34
So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.