As a child at Christmas

It’s Christmas Day, and I’m sitting here wishing my brain would move as quickly as it was at 1:30 this morning. I don’t know why overtiredness manifests itself in the form of sleepless nights, and I don’t appreciate the irony. I thought I’d grown out of being unable to sleep on Christmas Eve. To be fair though, the cause of my Christmas Eve insomnia has shifted from the anticipation of presents to being walked on by attention-starved cats, replaying any recent social interaction in my head, questioning my own decisions, trying to think of a Christmas themed blog post… You get the idea.

After a few hours of this, it was that contrast that got me thinking about experiencing Christmas as a child and as an adult. I mean, we usually keep it pretty simple every year – lunch, presents, family time, TV – and that’s how I like it. But kids don’t do Christmas by halves. They go over the top with excitement, they want to show off their Christmas presents, and they can scarcely contain themselves.

Unless they’re on the autistic spectrum. Especially if they’re anything like me.

As a child, present etiquette was a bit of a mystery to me. I loved presents as much as the next child, and if someone gave me one, knew I was happy about it. If I was feeling particularly on the ball, I even remembered to say thank you. So why were people so quick to assume I didn’t like it?

It was a while before I got it into my head that you have to look and sound excited when you receive a present, and look the giver right in the eye. A bit longer before I realised I didn’t do any of that. And even longer before I learned that having autism means that displaying body language comes no more naturally than reading it. But as a young adult, I think I’m getting it.

But hey, my lack of awareness back in the day proved advantageous for my mother. For a start, my present lists were basically the same every time. Soft toy, posh chocolates, plasticine. I was easily amused. And to cap it all, I was so unaware of the world around me, she could buy my presents right in front of me, and I would be none the wiser. As much as it was due to autism, my mum put it down to good parenting at the time.

Now the bar for her festive accomplishments has lowered. Now her biggest achievement is not tiring of the same joke year after year: handing me any distinctively rectangular present and telling me it’s a beachball. It seems that Mum was not content to leave it there this time, and so it was that among my presents I found – in a large rectangular box – one beachball. Brilliant.

Christmas performances have been a constant throughout my life. They’ve simply shifted from typical school/church nativities and carol services, to being “sixth narrator” in my primary school’s A Christmas Carol performance, to playing in the school orchestra/steel pan band in town, to singing almost in time with my current choir in the park.

As a child, I would need constant help keeping up with what was going on, with an adult or even a fellow child helping me focus, while I wondered when it would be finishing, so I could avail myself of any post-performance snacks. As an adult…no wait, nothing’s changed.

And so, as the Call the Midwife Christmas special draws ever nearer, I will wish you all the merriest of Christmases. Eat, drink, and be merry. May this be the start of a Christmas beachball trend! And a year of better sleeping.

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Rhian, a babby at Christmas

Yes. That is something I wrote – and illustrated – on a piece of paper, when I was little and my sister was a baby.

My sister, commonly known as Rhian, Rhiazza, Rhi Rhi, and by one of our uncles, Rhajazzle, had to come into the world in the thick of our family drama, three months after our arrival in England as a single parent family. I don’t think our early aquaintance made much of an impression on me. The following summary of Mum’s return from the hospital is testament to this:

Me: Where’s Rhian?

Mum (reveals the newborn baby in her arms): Here

Me: Oh (wanders off)

To begin with, I like to think I did a good job of asserting my authority as the official Big Sister. I had to; Rhian had this really annoying tendency to get snot or dribble on my toys. When you think about it, making her promise not to before letting her play with them was a very reasonable solution.

Rhian was not a soul to be tamed, however, and my days of being the dominant sibling were short lived. Once she was old enough to play with me, I had control of most of the toys, but she was fully in charge of what happened to them. In an argument, she was a force to be reckoned with, and as an overly sensitive autistic child, her tantrums used to terrify me. At one point, I kept crying that I felt “unforgiven!”, and Mum, in a fit of uncharacteristic naivety, asked Rhian, “you do love your sister, don’t you?” Cue a big “NO!” from Rhian, and further floods of tears from me.

She still hasn’t forgiven me for…whatever it was, by the way. I have asked.

For the most part, though, she was a fair minded and considerate younger sibling. When Mum married John, Rhian, who had decided she was first in line to inherit the wedding dress, very kindly said I could borrow it if I ever got married. When we went downstairs for breakfast, I was apparently allowed to go first on my birthday. She also showed a lot of interest in my development; I distinctly remember overhearing her telling our parents how much better I was at eating my crusts.

As we shifted into adolescence, I don’t think much changed except that I was firmer about not wanting to play with her, and after a while she lost interest anyway. Suddenly, wanting me to play was replaced by wanting me to read extracts of my diary to her. Or making me play Super Mario Bros on her Nintendo DS because I was so entertainingly bad. I did have to take cover many a time when John had to help her through exam revision and things got a little heated, but hey, at least I was no longer first in the firing line.

One thing Rhian doesn’t tire of is seeing how far she can challenge me emotionally. Her becoming life-threateningly ill in hospital in September was her most successful attempt yet. Having been turned away from A & E twice with what was dismissed as muscle pain, Mum forced the medics to take her seriously, and she was diagnosed with aggressive pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, pleurisy, and pleural empyema with one collapsed lung. She was in agonising pain – and close to death – to start with. Yet when I visited, she was well enough to roll her eyes at me for fussing, and complain about being in a room full of old ladies. Definitely on the mend.

And now, as a third year theatre student, she is in her first professional show, as Princess Tiger Lilly in a pantomime* production of Peter Pan. Three months ago, I’d accepted this would be a miracle. Now she’s dodging the evil Captain Hook, while accepting fanmail from small children (!!!). Does it get any better than this?

Rhian, accept this 700 word long fanmail from one proud big sister. And Merry Christmas!

 

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Us as bridesmaids following our parents’ wedding

 

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At the hospital

 

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*Non-British readers: a pantomime is a British Christmas tradition that is a show full of slapstick, crossdressing, song-and-dance, and audience participation. Loosely based on famous fairy tales and contains more pop culture references than you would think could be crammed into two or three hours.

It’s the thought that counts!

When it comes to present buying, I sometimes end up in a bit of a rut. I mean, I enjoy it, don’t get me wrong. And when whoever it is has given me a list, I’m happy. But you know how it is when you spend about 10, hour-long shopping trips picking up random items in shops and then moving on because they don’t feel like the perfect gift?

Whether you’re buying them or opening them, it’s easy to forget the significance of presents. When you’re opening them, your immediate emotional reaction depends on just how much potential for use and/or enjoyment they have. And sadly, there are always people who forget, or who wait until the last minute to buy something quick and cheap that is of no interest to the recipient. But it’s the thought that counts. Right?

Funnily enough, at the beginning of my Discipleship course, I wrote a talk that covered this particular sentiment. I’d been asked to explore the parable of the labourers, in which a man gets a bunch of people off the street to work for him, and pays them the same wage, despite some of them having worked for longer than others.

What I thought Jesus was saying, I explained at the time, was that being a part of God’s Kingdom isn’t a question of how long we’ve been following Him for, but whether we are genuine followers at all. In other words, sometimes the sentiment behind our actions matters more than the actions themselves.

Which brings me onto “the thought that counts.” Often it’s perfectly acceptable to just get someone a little something to show that you’re thinking of them. Using the above saying to get away with sub-minimal effort relative to what is appropriate, however, isn’t the idea at all. It’s the thought that someone wanted to put time and money into giving you something they thought would make you happy, that counts.

So when buying presents, you want to be that person. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to find the best possible things, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to slow down and instead remember why you are doing this. To show you love someone by giving them something they like? If the intention is heartfelt, and the friend a genuine one, they will feel it.

When someone buys me a present without me reciprocating, I feel kind of bad. When it’s vice versa, I feel bad if I’ve made them feel bad. If you get my drift. But I’ve had at least two people say to me that it doesn’t matter to them. And I think if everyone took that attitude, all that awkwardness wouldn’t be an issue. Because rather than coming to a mutual agreement about being on present terms or not – which I’m guilty of considering – we would all be able to appreciate the simple satisfaction of bringing each other joy.

Speaking of which, Bouncer, Tango, Suri and George all thought they could bring me joy by helping with the Christmas tree last week. I thought I could bring them joy by scattering cat treats in another room. The fact that I then closed the living room door is not important.

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Have yourself a merry indoor-tree time (from Bouncer)

First of all, I’m assuming you remember me. If not, call yourself a loyal reader! Anyway, I’m Bouncer, self-appointed Guide Cat for the Autistic and aspiring co-writer of this blog. Now, I don’t know about you, but in our house, there has been a sudden increase in food, shiny things and human activity. I’ve noticed things like this seem to happen every winter, a time of year characterised by one thing: the big-indoor-tree.

My first encounter with the indoor-tree was when I was just a lad of six months. Actually, my brother discovered it first. Said it made a very comfortable bed. What a waste of a good tree! It grows indoors once a year and within a day, it even sprouts shiny cat toys. Why sleep when you can explore? I said as much to my bro, and since then I have explored every last nook and cranny.

When I’m in the tree, my humans like to play a little game with me. I have to see how close I can get to it before they react. If I keep this up, at least one will try to grab me, at which point I can either dodge as many limbs as possible or I begin my ascent. From there, they have to try to catch me, while I see how many squirrel stunts I can pull off. Such a blast!

In the past, there have been two trees to choose from. While there is more to be explored in the bigger one, the smaller one scored higher in terms of the adrenaline rush a couple of years ago. The best bit was when I managed to cling on as it came crashing down and its shiny toys shattered all around me. Not a game for the faint hearted.

I knew this big-indoor-tree time was off to a good start when the human I assist, whose blog I’m borrowing, and the tree both appeared with just one sleep in between. Tree related acrobatics were a key part of my youth. Can a less-young cat still do old tricks?

Much to my frustration, I haven’t had a chance to find out. It was a certain young madam’s first indoor-tree-time, and last week she decided she was taking over the humans’ part in the game. No, I’m not going easy on her because she’s a beginner; she didn’t play fair! First she swore at me every time I moved, then when I tried to make my upward escape, she lunged at me! And if, hypothetically, I did run out of the room, it was only to show her just how athletic I still am. The humans are wondering if I’ll retire from it all after being defeated. I’ll show them defeated…

Still, today has been good. It’s always exciting when you wake up to gifts of rustling paper wrapped around different shapes. Then for my tea, I got to taste some of that giant bird that only humans seem to catch. And finally, my girl and I are reunited. I’ve been showing her all the rooms in case she’s forgotten. But then I’m not going into how she keeps disappearing WITHOUT me. ‘Tis the season for forgiving and forgetting – if I forgive her, perhaps she’ll forget to disappear again.

And on that note, a happy big-indoor-tree time to you all!

bouncer christmas

Christmas Special blog part 2: Christmas Traditions

Here it is – an unpublished would-have-been feature on Christmas and autism. If my increasingly frequent blog posts are getting annoying a) blame my lecturers and b) I’m not making a habit of blogging twice in as many days, so don’t worry. Meanwhile, enjoy!

What are Christmas traditions these days? Well, what do they involve for you? For me, Christmas will typically include church, cake decorating, minimal coursework and pulling one of our cats out of the Christmas tree. My family and I make quite a big thing of Christmas; some of you may be with me on this one, others not so much. One thing’s for sure: your way of celebrating an occasion is as unique as you are.

I know that for some people with disabilities, Christmas is a bit of a challenge. This is the first special needs article where I’m not writing from recent experience. According to my Mum, she could buy presents for me as a child while I was with her and I would be none the wiser. If anything, though, I think that must have been an advantage.

Having said that, I did have trouble expressing gratitude for presents, no matter how much I liked them. It still doesn’t come naturally to show a lot of emotion, but my parents taught me the drill at an early age: look at the giver of the present with a pleased expression and say thank you. Might sound simple, but it doesn’t pay to forget it!

I was also told that I would ask for the same sort of presents each year. Usually a soft toy, chocolate, plasticine and a book about whichever subject I currently had an autistic obsession with. I was never interested in whichever children’s toys were popular at the time, a common issue with autistic people and Christmas.

For some, these things go on into adulthood. This isn’t necessarily a problem – I mean, why would popular trends be any more interesting at Christmas than at any other time of year? Another thing is that an aversion to change means that a season of lots of people, excitement and surprises can be too much to handle. This can be more stressful. For the more introverted among us, having, or attending, a houseful of people, or remembering who to keep in touch with while you have the time is exhausting enough without being overloaded by the sudden disruption to routine.

So how do people on the spectrum deal with this? By keeping surprises to a minimum, maybe. Some autistic people prefer to be told in advance what they are getting for Christmas, some may simply want the same things each year. Or by getting used to each change one by one – getting the tree out, then gradually adding decorations over time, for example. Keeping track of presents you have bought? Make a list. Making sure to have a break from people? Now this is where I speak with experience. Full of food, in your own room and surrounded by presents – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I think the point I am trying to make here is that we all have our own ways of making the most of an occasion, and autistic ways are no exception. Hoping to enjoy Christmas? Spend time with your family and friends. Eat, drink and be merry. If, like me, you are a Christian, go to church. Enjoy and appreciate your presents, no matter how different they may be to your peers’. And don’t be afraid to retreat from it all. Whichever way you choose to celebrate, or not, each to their own, I say.

Christmas Special blog part 1: You know you’re in a Christmas Special when…

1) It’s probably snowing.

2) No matter how significant recent events have been, they will have little to no impact on Christmas…

3)…but chances are if anything significant does happen, this episode may only be available once a year at best, so people will probably miss it anyway.

4) You may get visited by three ghosts – you probably aren’t alone in this, don’t worry.

5) Maybe another profound/cheesy event will happen instead that will make you realise the true meaning of Christmas.

6) You’re really not doing anything that different to normal – you’re just doing it with a festive twist.

7) If your story goes on YouTube, you can be sure the comments thread will be in a state of war over religion, most loved and hated characters and internet trolls.

8) But hey, in the words of Cliff Richard, Christmas is a time for forgiving and for forgetting!

I know I haven’t stuck to this month’s theme of poetry for this “Christmas Special” blog. I’m basically adhering to my second point. In my last Creative Writing lecture, we were given the end-of-term festive activity of writing our own Christmas-themed Buzzfeed article. See the above points.

People say that the first month living away from home are the hardest. If anything, it’s been harder more recently. Until I came home, I was snowed under by coursework, catching more colds than I usually catch in a year and annoying Hannah by worrying that I annoy her. Not fun.

But hey ho, advent in the flat has had its good points. We danced (and ate) the night away at the Leicester City Vineyard Church Winter Ball. On a Navigators trip to Lazer Quest I did the group proud by coming second to last in the first game and last in the second. I even sang in the church choir at the LCV Carol Service. Or rather, I exhausted my vocal chords and stood out like a sore thumb because no-one told me I had to wear black. Fun and festive times!

Overall I’ve really needed a fun and relaxing Christmas, and I definitely got one. I put up and decorated two Christmas trees, decorated three cakes, made marzipan fruits and made tomato soup for our Christmas lunch starter. Every time I’ve come home this term, our house somehow feels abundant with food compared with the flat. I’d also missed the cats, Tango and Bouncer. They made up for lost time by sharing my bed and walking all over me at night.

Christmas would be better if I wasn’t fighting this virus my sister has, but hopefully it’s just a sore throat. Although that is what I kept saying when Hannah was sure I was catching something from her… That aside, I am now loaded with presents, food, chocolate and my parents’ “special” jokes. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have it any other way really. But sshhh, don’t tell them. Perhaps, most importantly, now is a good time to put what I wrote about faith into practice. As good a time as any, indeed.

To wrap up, I thought I’d do a part 2 to this blog tomorrow and post an unpublished Demon article I wrote about Christmas and autism. Happy reading! Meanwhile, for those who have never seen one before, here is an advent calendar made of cake:

What faith means to me

An excuse to justify

Irrationality

An invisible man in the sky

Or just stupidity?

A delusion of the people

Based on legends of the past

In an uncertain present

That’s what faith is said to be.

A turning point in life

For sufferers to see

A comfort and a guide

If belief feels easy

Set apart from the rest

Who are easy to reproach

In a crowded church with no regrets

That’s what faith seems to be.

Endless time in reflection

To learn how to feel free

A tendency to question

The things I cannot see

A chance to learn to live and love

Not just to love to live

A far off answer I’ve yet to learn

That’s what faith means to me.

It’s nearly Christmas. An occasion famous for putting aside our differences and just sharing peace and goodwill all round. And yet, when I came across this article on Facebook http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brandan-robertson/4-teachings-of-jesus-that_b_6343320.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000051, I immediately groaned inwardly. Did I think the article was the stupidest thing ever written? No. Was I anticipating what the comments section was going to look like?

Sadly yes. You know you’re living in the Digital Age when you feel surrounded by online media. And you know you’re surrounded by online media when there is a religion/politics/latest trends/goodness-knows-what based argument wherever you look. Atheists assuming that all Christians are prejudiced, self-righteous bigots? From what I’ve noticed, the more passionately atheists project this label, the less they appear to look at their own words before inflicting them on others. A minority of loud voiced Christians who do nothing to prove this label wrong? Unfortunately, and I’m not proud of this, that is one of the things that causes me to struggle with faith.

I know I’m not perfect, and especially not when it comes to being a Christian. I can be analytical and introspective to my heart’s content, but one of my principles that I struggle to take to heart is that whatever we believe in, we will never know everything. Another moral I try to go by is that being a Christian doesn’t mean you don’t question and think rationally, and being an atheist doesn’t mean you don’t treat others with respect and compassion.

I was struggling to think of a topic this week, and I realise that I haven’t managed to blog on the same day each week like I was intending. See, I told you I’m not perfect! In my defence, I spent most of Monday being patient with Marks and Spencers regarding the presents I had ordered, packing and arriving home to a piece of cake and two adoring cats. I’ve been fairly idle in the coursework department, but have put up and decorated two Christmas trees and played my violin in Carillon Court with my now-distant desk partner Katy*.

Whilst remembering to show both rationality and compassion…let the festivities begin!

*distant in that we both now live close to our respective universities