This is a toughie. It can be downright hard, because there are so many emotions tied up with the holidays. We have expectations. Christmas is supposed to be a time where we express our love and gifts are a way we do that.
What if the child, who has special needs, doesn’t like their gift? What if they don’t play with it? What if they open it, don’t react, and turn to their iPad instead?
It seems like a little thing but it can hurt. It hurts because Grandma and Grandpa want Julia to love her baby doll like they loved their baby dolls. They want Juan to love airplanes like they loved their airplanes. This hurts Grandma and Grandpa because their gift, their love, was tossed aside. It hurts Mom and Dad because they knew Juan didn’t like airplanes and really wanted a toaster instead, but that’s painful information to share because it shores up that Juan is different. It hurts Juan because he can sense new tension but he doesn’t understand where it came from or why it’s there.
It may seem silly to somebody who doesn’t have a child with special needs in their life, but it’s a very real issue. We want to fit in. We want our children to fit in. We want everybody to be happy, and to share the magic of the holidays that we enjoyed as a children, or to make them better than ours ever were. But a child often doesn’t appreciate the nuance of what we’re trying to do, and if you toss in any sort of disability, it complicates it even more.
What do we do? How do we keep feelings from being hurt?
I’ve learned through experience that the first thing to do is take a deep breath and let the expectations fall. This moment isn’t about us. It’s about the child.
I’m going to say that again, with love and relief.
It isn’t about us. It’s about the child.
We need to let go of the stress and the hurt. We have our own hangups that we carry with us. Set those aside, because it isn’t Julia and Juan’s fault that we feel stress to find the perfect gift, or that our gift has to be bigger than the other set of grandparents, or that we’re afraid our child will feel unloved if his or her gifts are simple. This is our perceived reality that we’re forcing on our sweet kiddo, and it isn’t fair. It isn’t about us. What does Juan want? What does he really want, not “what do I think Juan should want?”
Here are some gifts that have made a difference in our lives, and I’ll tailor them to Juan and his beloved toasters.
1) The Object
Juan loves toasters with an unholy love. Does the household need a new toaster? Does Juan need a shiny toaster in the kitchen that is just for him? My son loves bread machines, so he received one for his tenth birthday. You’ve never seen a happier child.
2) Things Related to the Object
There are, believe it or not, stuffed toasters. Toaster-themed bedroom decor. The movie “The Brave Little Toaster.” Make him a sweater with a toaster on it. What about a toaster cake? A bag of his favorite bread with a little card that says, “Juan’s Special Toaster Bread” on it? You may think I’m kidding, but something small and dear like that means so much. It means that you see him, you see what he likes, and you support him in liking that thing. You aren’t trying to change him. You’re simply loving him the way he is.
Try giving him a toaster manual. Take pictures of toasters and put them together in a book for him to flip through. My dear friend did that with ceiling fans, and her son had a book specifically designed for him. Perhaps make a short video of your family and friends, waving and saying hi to Juan. Call him by name. Tell him you love him. Show him your toaster and how it works. Show him the buttons and slides and levers. Wipe it down so he can see it become clean and shiny. Make a piece of toast. Smile, because he is special to you, and you are letting him know in a way he can understand.
My brother and sister-in-law did this for my son with their washers and dryers. Everyone in the family got together with their kids and showed him their laundry room. They showed him where they kept their soap and started a load of laundry for him. “Here’s the dial for the water. I’m going to put it on low because I’m doing a small load.”
He was rapt, seeing his favorite people doing his favorite thing, smiling at him and using his name. I cried. I’m tearing up again simply thinking about it. It was a 30 minute movie that was just for him, and it’s been replayed often. It might be the most touching, thoughtful gift we’ve ever received.
Life changes when special needs happen. Things that used to be simple, like leaving the house, become astronomically difficult. Modifications must be made and expectations adjusted.
Experiences don’t need to be big to be meaningful. Perhaps for Christmas, you can give Juan a card saying that you’ll take him to the store to look at toasters. He can look at toasters as long as he wants to. He can touch them and study the coils inside. You won’t rush. This is his Christmas gift. Just you and an experience he’ll enjoy.
You can visit a pawn shop and pick up a junky old toaster. You can have a date at your house so he can use your toaster. You’ll make and eat toast together, just the two of you.
Or perhaps he can make toast for the whole family. It will be half an hour where everybody sits down and enjoys Chef Juan’s toast. It will be his contribution, a way that he can show his love while you show yours.
Does the child in your life like escalators? You can take her to the mall and ride the escalators for half an hour. Does she like the feel of fabric? Then how about an outing to a fabric store so she can feel every piece of fabric that she wants? Whatever you do, treat it as special because it is. Give her a calendar with the date of your outing circled in red. “This is the day we’re going to do this fun thing together.” Let her look forward to it.
4) Mend Treasures
Perhaps Juan only has five toys he’s interested in, and they’ve taken a lot of abuse. This is a wonderful time to give these treasures some care.
Replace their batteries. Stitch them back together. Fix the wonky eye, the broken lens, the bent rims. Wipe them down. Shine them up. Replace missing parts and make them magical again. Show him these things are important to you because they’re important to him.
I hope your hearts and those dear to you are filled as you share your love. Disabilities can be so difficult and isolating, and the fact that you searched for this topic says so very much about you and your kindness. May you continue to be a joy to those who love you, and a light to the sweet child you care about. Happy holidays. <3