How My Autism Family Rescued Our Christmas

A Personal Perspective: Holiday challenges of Covid, disappointment, and autism.

Psychology Today, December 31, 2022

This year, our traditional holiday plans were spoiled by sickness. We had been looking forward to our annual beloved Christmas in New Hampshire with my husband Ned’s family. But these days, we always test ourselves for Covid before a gathering with the oldest generation, and to our horror, my youngest son Ben had a surprise positive.

Then I came down with a vicious stomach flu. My middle son Max, normally a really easy-going guy, fell into terrible angry despair because he’d missed Christmas now for three years in a row due to Covid, and he had been looking forward to introducing his girlfriend to his grandparents at last.

Nat, my oldest son, is a man of very few words, given his severe autism, but I could see the anxiety erupt through his body as I told him we weren’t going. Nat lives by his calendar, and December means Chanukah and Christmas. And so, over the years, I have learned how to recognize the signs of an imminent meltdown and how to head it off at the pass: by bargaining. I try to find something to offer in exchange for the cancellation, like a trip to the ice cream store or a car ride. But we had all just been exposed to Covid, plus everything was closed anyway. So what could I bargain with, given how much he loved Christmas and hated changed plans?

Answer: making our gingerbread house. Every year for decades now, we have baked a gingerbread house from scratch. Our whole family participates. We’ve done all sorts of structures: castles, friends’ houses, Castle Black, and The Wall from Game of Thrones (complete with tiny candy elevator!). But our preferred build is our own house.

At some point a long time ago, my husband Ned, a mathematician and model maker, fashioned a template of our late-era Victorian home. Albeit streamlined, the overall gestalt of the thing feels like home but smaller and better tasting.

Nat and I look forward to this project every year because we both have taste buds that never grew up and stomachs that give no warning signs of when to stop eating sugar.

This time would be different. I had spent Christmas Eve in bed, uncomfortably close to the bathroom. On Christmas Day, I woke up feeling like my stomach was writhing like a bag of biting snakes. My skin hurt, and my head felt smashed into my eyes. When I stood at the kitchen island, looking at all the building materials—M&Ms, Sno-Caps, mini marshmallows, Hershey bars—I wondered how the heck I was going to get through this.

But I had no choice. I would have to stand up for a few hours rolling dough and help my sad son Max cut out the eaves and the roof and even the tiny brick bathroom a former owner had added to the house in 1919.

Ben, who was isolating, could not help us. Usually a delight, now our baking felt like a total drag. But I had to keep up the appearance of enjoyment because if I showed signs of sickness, Nat would perseverate over it and work himself up into a terrible outburst.

Perhaps this should have been a teaching moment, an opportunity for Nat, who is 33, to learn that I am only human and that he needed to learn to deal with it.

Wrong. I was up against one of the most “Immovable Objects of the Universe:” Autism-infused obsession, and there was no way I could handle that at that moment. So there I was, shaky hands, fake smile, pointing to a collapsing roof and saying things like, “Oh, that came out really good, Nat,” and “Let’s use the Hershey bars for shutters,” and frequently doling out dough bits and spoonfuls of icing for him.

Finally, we were finished. We’d decided that we would not display it for days like we usually did, but instead would take a picture and then destroy it so that Nat could take pieces back to his group home. This was another change Nat had to adjust to–leaving us a day early, but luckily he loves his group home, so it was okay with him.

Ned and Max began to get ready to drive Nat back, and I finally got my chance to lie down on my favorite couch. But again, this lack of energy signaled to Nat that I was actually sick. I was nervous that he would see me lying there and remember all over again how different this Christmas was. But I could not sit up. I just could not do it. Let the pieces fall where they may, I was done.

Nat walked into the living room, looking at me carefully. Seeing it all, but silent. I waited for him to get panicky again, to urge me to get up, to be normal Mom. But all he did was whisper two words: “No Covid.” And then he left.

What had he meant? I wondered if he was saying, “I hate this. I hate sickness.” Or was he saying, “Get better soon?” But I’d like to think that Nat was telling me that even Covid was no match for our gingerbread house.