Christmas Day with my autistic brother isn’t perfect, but it’s ours
Many look around on Christmas morning and feel a pang of sadness. It’s not about self-pity
If there’s ever a time of year that throws the unconventional family into sharp relief, it’s Christmas. From sumptuous cookery programmes to wholesome films and pushy advertising, we’re surrounded by portrayals of what it means to have the perfect celebration. I often spend December feeling like Kevin McCallister in Home Alone, as he gazes through the windows of brightly lit houses at happy families celebrating within. While I wouldn’t trade my family for another, there remains a tendency to compare. And as others crowd round their mantelpieces and their dining room tables exchanging gifts and snaffling Quality Street, I’ll be at my brother’s care home, as I am every year.
My 22-year-old brother is severely autistic and has been in full-time residential care since he was a teenager. Up until then he lived with us in a noisy, happy home where he was allowed to scribble on the walls and climb up the banisters. We were very close.
His going away in his mid-teens was a difficult decision, but one that had to be made. He had become too big for my single mum to handle, and his behaviour was becoming increasingly obsessional – she couldn’t cope. The place where he lives now is perfect for him: a low-impact environment in the countryside, with specially trained staff. But I worry that, at some level, he thinks we have abandoned him. I wonder how much he remembers of the Christmasses in the family house when he was little, and whether he yearns for them, as I do.
Admittedly, it took him a while to understand Christmas. For many years the celebration pretty much passed him by. Then, around the age of seven, the teachers at his special needs school taught him about Santa and presents. That year, we were given much longed-for snow; it fell in fat flakes on Christmas Eve, settling at four or five inches deep. He was so excited; I’ll never forget his face when we took him out with the red plastic sleigh the next morning and pulled him down the hill.
Autistic people can be extra-receptive to light, so introducing the Christmas tree to him, all strung with fairy lights, was always a special moment for us. One year, we were so skint we couldn’t afford a tree, so a friend and I disappeared up the mountain with a saw, under the cover of darkness, and returned a couple of hours later with a perfect specimen. Seeing him pogoing up and down with excitement made it worth the fear of being shot by an enraged farmer.
These days, opening presents is one of his favourite activities. Waking him up in his room with his stocking is my favourite part – he’ll always crack a big, beautiful smile. When the unwrapping is done, he arranges his presents carefully, usually insisting on looking through all the books we’ve bought for him immediately (and naming everything that’s pictured on the page). Then we’ll go out for Christmas dinner together. It’s not a conventional Christmas Day, but it’s ours.
I know I’m not the only person out there who finds this time of year to be poignant, difficult even. Whether it’s because of a family breakdown, bereavement or divorce, or difficulty making ends meet, there are many who might look around on Christmas morning and feel a pang of sadness.
It’s not about self-pity, just a straightforward appraisal of the facts. So much of Christmas is about family that it will naturally bring to mind the much-loved parent who passed away, the estranged sibling, or the poorly son or daughter who they can’t seem to fix.
Perhaps this is why 35-year-old mother of three Emma Tapping caused such consternation last week when she posted on social media a picture of a pile of presents so big it almost obscured the tree. The debate, for me, highlighted all the sensitivities people have around Christmas. Clearly I’m not the only one feeling prickly.
Which is why I’d like to express solidarity with all those people out there celebrating their own atypical, bittersweet Christmasses this year. You’re not alone, there’s no such thing as a perfect family. Plus, you can always just get drunk. Merry Christmas.