There’s a saying for parents of children with autism:
“Autism is where the little things are never little, and every milestone is a celebration.”
In other words, success in a family with children diagnosed with autism can look very different from success in a typical family. My son Steven’s lack of interest in unwrapping gifts is an example of that.
Since Steven was young, my wife and I have tried to help him open presents—whether it be for Christmas, a birthday, or other occasions. We place the gift directly in front of him. We partially open it for him. We model opening gifts, making happy faces to show how to express gratitude (even if it’s socks). Year after year, we try to interest him in presents. And year after year, he won’t open them.
We often felt cheated that we couldn’t share something our friends experienced: watching their child open a gift and smile.
People would get upset that he wasn’t interested in what they’d given. They would tell us we should teach him to open and appreciate his presents. As if we weren’t trying. My wife and I would get frustrated, routinely trying to teach him something millions of other kids can do. We often felt cheated that we couldn’t share something our friends experienced: watching their child open a gift and smile.
Somewhere along the way, we made peace with the likelihood that it might never happen.
Then last Christmas, my sister-in-law—who is a teacher in Steven’s school system—sent me a video. It shows Steven opening a gift of an Elvis calendar. He looks at it and signs “Thanks.”
This was the first time in his life that I'd ever seen him open a present.
I couldn’t believe it. I played the video several times to confirm I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. I told my wife, who assumed I was teasing and making it up. She didn’t believe it until she saw it for herself. We watched it over and over again with tear-filled eyes.
Many of us take so many things in life for granted. Opening a present? A piece of cake. But it isn’t that easy for every child. There are many children like our son who spend so much time trying to achieve something that most people never give a second thought.
The video of Steven and his Elvis calendar was an early Christmas present, in more ways than one.
The video of Steven and his Elvis calendar was an early Christmas present, in more ways than one. It strengthened our bond with my sister-in-law, who knew what a milestone this would be for Steven and for us. After twelve years, he could open a present on his own. And she captured it on video.
This may sound like a little thing, but it was one of the biggest moments of our year. We welcome it gratefully, and we celebrate it. We hope that this is just the first of many gifts Steven will open throughout his life.
Keith Hammond was born in coal mining country in Eastern Kentucky, but has lived in the Cincinnati, Ohio area since 1984. Keith has been involved with Easterseals Serving Greater Cincinnati for twenty-five years, working with various programs to help individuals with disabilities live, learn, work, and play. He also enjoys live concerts, particularly the Go-Go’s and Belinda Carlisle solo, and reading old pulp fiction from the 1930’s. Keith and his wife, Amy, raise two teenagers with autism, Hillary and Steven, and their two cats, Betty and Veronica.
Image credit: Will Jones