Well, you’re probably surprised, right? I mean – first off – I’m kinda old for this. It must be at least, I don’t know, 30 years since my last letter? And, we both know I’m a notorious procrastinator. It’s practically breaking a law of nature for me to write you this letter before December 24. But, I was in the grocery store the other day, staring at row-upon-row of Halloween candy and decorations (even though it was still summer … No, really, still summer), and I thought, I’ve been pretty good this year. I think I should get something for that.
Selfishly, I’d like a medal. A great big, shiny gold medal that says “I’M A SUPER MOM. SANTA SAID!”
But, selfish doesn’t get you on the “Nice” list. So, here’s my one and only request: I want a user’s manual for my kid. I have a BIG question, and it would be marvelous if there was an actual resource for this one. I tried asking a group of about 25 spectrum parents, and I got about 25 different answers.
(I’d give you their names so you could give them user’s manuals, too, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy on pain of never being allowed to eat bacon again. Ever. Seriously. I know. You can’t even wrap your mind around that, right? It’s a tough crowd.)
You see, Santa, here’s my dilemma. My daughter, Helene, is autistic. She knows who you are — sort of. You’ve appeared in quite a few animated videos, so she believes you are a cartoon character in some of her favorite shows, singing some of her favorite songs. (Come to think of it, I’ve been better than “pretty good” this year. Do you know how much patience it takes to sing Christmas carols in the middle of July when it’s 100° F and you’re sitting in traffic? GOLD. MEDAL. PATIENCE.)
But, Helene does not know everything about what you do. She has no idea that you fly around the world in your sleigh to deliver presents anywhere outside of YouTube – particularly our living room.
I am torn. Do I let her go on believing you are nothing but a cartoon character? Or, do I encourage her to behave her best and send a hopeful letter to the North Pole, wishing for a magical delivery? Because, Santa, my daughter (like many other children on the autism spectrum) has a very small circle of trust, and I am lucky enough to be in the circle. Helene believes me when I tell her that her shoes are pink, that it’s warm outside, that I will pick her up after school, that I love her. Also, Helene’s mind is very literal – I have to be careful when I say things like “just a minute,” “hold your horses” or “keep an eye on it,” or I end up with a child who will wait only 60 seconds, ask “What horse?” or press her eye against whatever “it” might be.
Need an example? I can do that. One time, Helene was trying to walk around the left side of the dining room table to get something from me. But, a chair blocked her way. I said, “Helene, go the other way,” meaning walk around the right side of the table. Instead, she turned around and tried to walk backward toward me. Yep. That was the other way.
Listen, one my life’s missions is never to break Helene’s trust, which is especially challenging when communicating with someone who doesn’t deal in shades of grey. (No, not THAT grey, and I’ll have you know I doubly deserve a GOLD MEDAL for not reading that crap …)
At the same time, I have to balance Helene’s need for literal clarity against my responsibility to give her as authentic a childhood as possible by not depriving her of experiences because of my own fears about what she can or can’t handle.
It is fear from which my need for advice springs, Santa. What happens if I convince Helene to believe in you — the realness of you — and someday, she doesn’t anymore? Will she think I lied to her? Will the circle of trust be broken? Or, will she simply take it in stride because she’s outgrown you? Will she be able to look back at memories of you and recall the joyful anticipation of Christmas morning, the comfort of falling asleep enveloped in the sweet, warm scent of fresh-baked chocolate chip and sugar cookies, and the thrill of finding an overstuffed, red-velvet-and-white-fuzz-trimmed stocking full of goodies and toys next to her bed on Christmas morning? Or will she feel only as if I played an elaborate trick on her and start doubting everything I say?
I truly don’t know what to do here. On the one hand, I could tell her that you’re not real; that you’re just a cartoon character like the Wonder Pets or Mike the Knight. But, she will inevitably hear about you from kids at school or family members, each of whom will try mightily to convince her of the magic that happens each year in the North Pole. Or, Helene could end up breaking the heart of one of her friends or family members by staunchly insisting that you are not real, because her Mama said you aren’t real and Mama always tells the truth.
WHAT DO I DO?!?
So, Santa, if you could please send me a user’s manual for my beautiful, sweet, complex, enigmatic daughter, I’d take that over pretty much anything else I could wish for this year. The gold medal can wait.