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The Real Gift My Son With Autism Got From Santa This Year

The gymnasium was lined with large, brightly lit and decorated Christmas trees. In the center of the gym were a couple long tables filled with smaller but still brightly decorated trees. At the far end of the gym stood Santa Claus in his vibrant red suit, with his long, fuzzy, white beard. Music filled the room: “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Frosty the Snowman.” Outside the gym, the smells of hot chocolate and cookies wafted through the air, and the laughter of children and adults alike filled the building. It was a joyful and carefree scene, but for one little boy, for David, it was simply a lot. The lights were too bright. The sounds were too loud. The smells were too strong.

David had been in this building, the local Boys and Girls Club, many times before, but it looked a lot different today than it did when he went with me to pick up his brother from the afterschool program. David had chosen to join me and his brother today at the Boys and Girls Club’s Festival of Trees because he had a very specific mission in mind. He was going to tell Santa his Christmas wish.

David spent the first half-hour looking into the gymnasium. I could see him working to process the many lights, sounds and smells. I could see that he was waging an internal battle between wanting to share his Christmas wish with Santa and being unnerved by all the stimuli, particularly the lights and ornaments on the trees and the stranger in the red plush suit with the long white fluffy beard. I can’t blame him. He’d never met or talked to Santa before. He was a stranger, and we don’t talk to strangers. But Santa was a different kind of stranger? Weird!

Sensing his growing discomfort, I asked David, “Do you want to go home?” He did, so we walked out the door and toward our car. I told him it would be OK; we’d go home and write a letter to Santa. Then David stopped in his tracks, looked up at me with his big, blue eyes and said, “Santa? Switch?” (For those unfamiliar with gaming systems, David was talking about a Nintendo Switch.)

“Do you want to go back to see Santa?” I asked. I could see he was not sure about this. “Do you want Mama to tell Santa you want a Switch?” I asked. Yes, that is exactly what he wanted.

As we re-entered the building, people smiled and greeted us kindly. If anyone noticed our short detour outside, nobody mentioned it.

David slowly approached the gymnasium again. He looked expectantly from the trees to me and back again. Santa was no longer in the back in the photo area. He was now in the front of the gym only about 20 feet from the door. I told David I was going to go talk to Santa. He was still very reluctant. A staff member noticed and asked if he wanted to talk to Santa. David didn’t respond. He stared at Santa with saucer-like eyes. “He’s scared,” I explained. “Maybe Santa could wave at him?” “Of course!” said the staff member, “Let me go tell him.”

As we waited for her to get Santa’s attention, I waited about 10 feet inside the door of the gymnasium and David waited on the other side of the threshold. David took one timid step over the threshold. Everyone gave him space and time. I may have held my breath a little. David took another step toward me. And then another, and another, and then he was standing right next to me.

“You’re so brave,” I told him. “Do you want to tell Santa yourself?”

Santa turned toward David and smiled. It was a friendly and welcoming smile, but I still thought David might turn and run. Just then, however, Santa did the most perfect thing. He knelt down, offered David a high five and waited for David to come to him. David smiled from ear to ear, approached Santa and gave him a great big high five. And then he gave him another one and another one and another one. I felt a tear of joy run down my face. As we said good-bye to Santa, David finally got to tell him his Christmas wish.

I am sure Santa heard David and David will find his wish under the tree on Christmas morning. On this cool Sunday afternoon in December, however, Santa and all the folks at the Boys and Girls Club gave David another gift that is far more important and precious than one that can be found under the tree. They gave David the gifts of patience, acceptance, and most importantly, inclusion.