In this season of gift giving, desire is a common feeling. We all have our wish lists, and children, especially, have detailed yearnings. They tell their parents their wishes, they make a letter for Santa, and they have no qualms about asking gifts from their ninongs and ninangs. Christmas is a time for giving, and as parents, it is our joy to give to our children what they want.
As for my five-year old son with autism, getting him what he wants can be particularly tricky. For one, he’s non-verbal. He can only speak the most rudimentary of requests (give, help, open, etc.) and actually telling us what he likes is beyond his current capabilities.
Second, he doesn’t really want anything. When I bring him to the toy store, he’ll run around in excitement because there’s a lot of items to pull down and touch and tinker with, but he doesn’t really want anything. He’ll pick up toy after toy after toy and discard it just as fast. Telling him to choose whatever he wants and we’ll buy it yields nothing. When we give him a new toy, he’ll be interested in it for 30-60 seconds and then it will just be another one among the pile. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Jedi lightsaber or a doll or a truck or just a simple box—nothing really makes an impression.
In fact, there’s only been one time when my son showed an unequivocal sign that he wanted something. It happened in his second week in school.
We were able to enroll him in a playschool about two months late in the school year. There were only a few children in the class—less than 10—and the kids were roughly the same age. What’s great here is that even though this was a playschool with neuro-typical kids (what people call as “normal”), they were eager to accept my special needs son and integrate him in the class.
A part of their regular routine is story time—the teacher will be in front where she’ll read a story to the kids. Since there’s only a few of them, the children are all in one line facing the teacher. A second teacher (a shadow teacher) would guide kids who need help in settling down.
One of the markers of my son’s autism is his inability to sustain attention on anything for a prolonged period. Even as the teacher tries her best to keep the attention of the children through animated voices and songs, my son’s eyes would be drifting to various parts of the room—on the ceiling, the pictures on the walls, the door, the floor, the books beside him—anywhere but where you’d want him to look.
On this particular day, my son was placed at the end of the line, with the rest of his classmates on his right, and the shadow teacher was on his left. As he was sitting, he looked to his right and saw all of his classmates. A few boys and a few girls, some looked mestizo, while others were dark skinned. Some wore their hair long, and some had shaved heads. A jumble of cute arms and unruly hair, of bright eyes and quick smiles.
It was, as the shadow teacher recalled, the longest time she has seen my son concentrate on something. No darting eyes or any inclination to escape. The teacher was telling her story, while my son stared at his classmates. Every child looked different, but my son noticed that every single one of them was wearing the same school uniform: a white shirt with a big, yellow sun with the school’s name below it. Because he was enrolled late, he was the only one who didn’t have a uniform yet.
After staring at his classmates, he looked down at his shirt and saw that his was dissimilar to what the other children were wearing. Quickly, he looked at them again, and finally looked left to his shadow teacher. Because of my son’s autism and his escape tendencies, the shadow teacher would usually be with him, and they’ve developed a close bond. Maybe that’s why he had the courage to do what he did next.
He stared at the shadow teacher, who was wearing the same uniform. Then, slowly—as if he were asking permission—he took his shadow teacher’s hand and placed it on the yellow sun on her uniform, covering it and nullifying its similarity with the others. Even without words, his eyes showed the clarity of his thoughts.
“Join me. Don’t let me be alone.”
He was five years old, and it was the first time he realized he was different.
Two weeks later, his uniform finally arrived. The teacher showed the shirt to him when he got to the school.
At first, he didn’t understand. The teacher had to go down on her knees to talk to my son eye to eye and tell him that yes, this was his. My son—my son who never gets excited with any new toy or gadget or even colorful costumes—actually jumped and gave her his tightest hug.
So if you ask me what a non-verbal child with autism would love for Christmas, the answer is clear: it’s the same thing that you and I or any kid would want—to belong.