Autism often brings a host of sensory challenges—sensitivity to sound, lights, crowds, anxiety over new experiences—and I see all these things in my son, Liam, a non-speaking autistic 7-year-old. The holidays are especially overwhelming for Liam, and my husband and I have always avoided conventional activities like visits to Santa in favor of more Liam-friendly moments. We do things like snap candid pictures in front of outdoor trees, or visit the mall at off times. We're not upset that we don't do all the traditional Christmas activities—our child is different and so we embrace our different path. Plus, we figure that waiting in line, sitting in a stranger's lap, and then being asked, "What do you want for Christmas?" is needlessly stressful for a child who certainly has desires, but who struggles to make them known.
But even with all that in mind, my heart soared when I read the story about the mall Santa who got down on the floor to look at snow globes with Brayden Deely, an autistic child who was at a Caring Santa event at SouthPark mall in Charlotte, North Carolina. Rather than doing the usual thing and expecting Brayden to sit in his lap, this Santa followed Brayden's interests and a moment of connection, understanding, and beauty ensued.
This moment, while small, encapsulates what's possible when we recognize and celebrate the neurodiversity of autistic kids. It shows what can happen when we stop trying to force kids who are different to do things our way, or the way it's always been done. When we step outside the box, be it to lie on the floor and look at snow globes, sift wood chips at the park, or participate with an open mind and heart in doing what our autistic kids want to do, we can make precious new memories during the holidays and throughout the year.