Well, we survived another Christmas in our house. I suppose I shouldn’t say “survived” this year. There have been times, mind you, when that has been the best word to describe our family’s holiday observances. Having six kids on the autism spectrum can lead to all kinds of challenges around the holidays. From the absence of a structured school day to the sensory overload of a joyous but crowded Christmas liturgy, there are lots of opportunities for ASD people either to melt down or withdraw into their own worlds.
But this year was different. There were some minor issues along the way, but nothing left me shaking my head in deep frustration or abject resignation.
So what made the difference? I think much of the reason lies in something that happened four weeks earlier, on the first Sunday of Advent.
There’s a funny thing about Advent. For at least the first two weeks of the season, the Scripture readings in the Catholic liturgy focus on the “second coming” of Christ at the end of time instead of his first coming on Christmas Day. The prophet Isaiah’s glorious “mountain of the house of the Lord” is in the horizon, not the peaceful manger in Bethlehem. It’s a time of restoration and perfect, lasting peace, a time when the lion lies down with the lamb and when all the barren “wildernesses” in the world are transformed into lush landscapes.
It isn’t until December 16 that the scene shifts and Mary and Joseph take center stage rather than Isaiah and John the Baptist. In a sense, we shift from our ultimate goal—heaven itself—to one of the most important mile markers on the road to that goal—the dawn of redemption at the birth of Christ.
This shift can feel a bit jarring, but I saw something new this year. With its early focus on the second coming, Advent has a sense of movement. You know that you’re heading somewhere. The destination is always in view as you are encouraged to take one more step toward it. Rather than a time of passive waiting for Jesus to appear (in whatever form), Advent is a time for journeying. It’s a road, not a way station.
Progress on the Road.
What does all this have to do with autism and my family? Well, as we headed to Mass on December 1, it occurred to me that we are heading somewhere as well. We’re not just treading water, trying to survive the next melt down. We’re not just anxiously awaiting the next diagnosis or school-related drama. We’re not just marking time between therapy visits and prescription refills.
It kind of sneaks up on you, doesn’t it? You expend so much energy helping your kids make sense of the outside world, negotiating truces between them, advocating for them, picking up the pieces after they fall apart, and trying to forestall the next crisis that you rarely get the chance to see how much your work is paying off. But it is.
For one thing, whether you know it or not, your kids are figuring things out on their own, often quite independent of you. They’re developing their own coping skills and testing their own strengths and weaknesses. They’re learning what works and what doesn’t as they try to make sense of the jangled, jumbled world they’ve been thrown into. They do is all by themselves, when you’re not looking, and they come to their own conclusions about how they should live.
For another thing, your words are getting through to them, even if you have to repeat them over and over again. Just the other day, our oldest daughter verbally walked me through her unique, unorthodox strategy of how she was trying to avoid a melt down over a toy she wanted—and then proceeded to prove that it worked. Not only did she not fall apart; she was pretty darned proud of herself.
Finally, you don’t tend to notice day-to-day how much your kids are changing you. They’re making you more patient. They’re teaching you how to love in ways you never thought of. They’re making you more compassionate—not just for them but for everyone else who struggles. In a way, they’re helping to make you more like Christ.
In other words, you are on the road. It’s just hard to see it sometimes.
New Road, Same Destination.
It sounds so simple, but when you’re in the thick of it as often as we are, it’s hard not to see the forest as just one freakin’ tree after another, each tree blocking your path. But those trees are more than just obstacles; they’re marking out a new road for you to travel.
This is one of the biggest challenges I face as a parent: accepting a different path for my family than the one I imagined so long ago. But that’s where my kids come in. Each in their own way, they’re heading down that path of their own accord, and they’re taking me with them. From the fourteen-year-old with intense social anxiety to the four-year-old with hair-trigger sensory issues, from the flap-happy eight-year-old to the OCD thirteen-year-old, they all seem to have discovered a new road. I have little choice but to follow them, sometimes chasing after them, as they go on their way.
I kind of knew that was happening all along, I guess, but this Advent has made it easier for me to see it. Even better, these past few weeks have made me more aware that the path doesn’t lead to a dead end or into a shadowy valley. It still leads to the “mountain of the house of the Lord.” The mountain is higher than I thought it would be. The climb is steeper than I thought it would be. But that’s okay, because the house that sits on top of the mountain is a lot bigger and a lot more glorious than I thought it would be.
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