Our family gatherings always include a lot—and I mean a lot—of people. My husband, Chris, alone has ten siblings, most of whom have families of their own. There are countless nephews, nieces, cousins, uncles, aunts, and grands. The tables are packed with food—breads, meats, cheeses, Gramma Maiano’s famous struffoli. (You know how Italian families are.) For my son Nicholas, who isn’t used to being around a lot of people in his everyday routine, it often adds up to sensory overload.
Extended family members sometimes ask my son questions he may not be capable of answering. He may seem annoyed by their approach, or not even acknowledge their presence. It can be a little uncomfortable because I don’t want them to think he’s being rude.
Luckily, there are also relatives who get it. My niece Sarah is one of them. She knows about Nick’s dietary restrictions, and comes up with great recipes (like the banana muffins he loves).She makes him use his voice to request things, and plays inquisitive games like “Where’s your nose?” or “Touch your head.” The Manzos, my sister-in-law’s family, are amazing with Nick. She picks him up and spins him around, which gets him to say “Super Nick!” when he wants more.
A few family members say I baby Nick too much, cuddling him in my arms and looking directly into his eyes when I speak to him. They don’t understand that it’s the bond between my son and me that pulls him out of his world and into ours.
An autistic child can also keep you humble amid the excesses of holidays and celebrations. Last Christmas Eve, I was up until 4:30 a.m. putting together Nick’s toy car, Big Wheel, kitchen set, and blow-up ball pit. Come morning, he walked into the living room as if it were any other day. He went right to a little figurine on the table. He sat there, fixated, quietly singing Christmas songs as he rocked the figurine back and forth.
It’s hard for parents of autistic children to not feel a little cheated at times. I’ve learned to accept my life, and our lives together. We continue to enjoy our big, loud, laugh-filled family traditions with the hope that one day Nicholas will say, “I remember when...” At that point, I’ll know that I did a pretty good job as his mom.