The Challenges of Christmas for Our Special-Needs Family

"Are you going to put a tree up this year?" my friend and fellow special-needs mom asked. "Well, probably not. James doesn't always do well with the extra sensory stimulation. And I can't put wrapped gifts under it ahead of time because he will obsessively ask to open them. And since he'll be out of school for two and a half weeks, that's a lot of extra time to pull ornaments off the tree. It's just easier if we don't." 

Oh, Christmas time! The most joyous season, but also the toughest for families like mine.

Here are some of the challenges we're facing this month:

We are out of our routine. The boys will be out of school for two and a half weeks! We already traveled to see family, so we'll just spend their break at home and in town. James gets bored easily! 

Everywhere we go looks different because it's covered in lights or tinsel. The smells are stronger, with live Christmas trees outside the grocery store. And the sounds are louder, with bells ringing and non-stop Christmas music playing. 

The church routine is off. It's hard for James to sit quietly at church. Christmas Eve services are known for being quiet and reflective, so that's out. And at our church this year, there won't be any child care on Christmas morning. Which is great, so everyone can attend the service together, but it does mean James and I can't attend. Or if we do, we'll hang out in the kids' area by ourselves.

Holiday parties are a big challenge for us, especially as we get older (and our kids get older). A typical 11 and 9 year old can tag along to parties and play with the other kids without being checked on very often. But like you wouldn't leave a toddler on his own at a party full of adults, we don't take our eyes off of James. Not only is he famous for stealing other peoples' drinks, he could easily get out of the house and elope (wander away). A nine-year-old boy with autism eloped from a family home on Thanksgiving day in my city and was found dead a couple days later in a pond. The fear is real, so we take turns attending parties or hire a babysitter to stay home with James. 

You can't always recreate the memories that were most important to you growing up. We don't sit around as a family and read from Luke 2 like my husband did growing up. The boys don't wake up early and try to look at their gifts from Santa like I did growing up. We have to adjust our expectations of what Christmas is supposed to be like.

Even with all these challenges, the joy of the season remains. 

There are unexpected gifts and blessings, like James waiting his turn to open gifts without complaint. Or him trying a new food (he's our vegetarian). One Christmas he even stood on stage with his Sunday school class and rang a bell while they sang!

And we try new things, understanding they may not go as planned, like keeping him in the church service for the music but taking him out when the preaching starts if he needs to leave. We drive around to look at Christmas lights even if we don't hang them up at our house. 

And we especially love giving gifts to his teachers and therapists who have cared for him so well this year. Celebrating how others have loved our family well in the past year brings us so much joy. 

You don't have to have a perfect Christmas to have a joyful one. 

Think of all the challenges that had to be overcome on the night Jesus was born! He didn't come to give us the perfect Christmas—He came to bring us peace. And if adjusting our expectations and being patient with each other leads to a more peaceful and joyous Christmas, it's totally worth it, even with all the challenges.