WITH autistic twins aged seven, the festive season for Miriam Gwynne is not traditional but that does not detract from the family joy
Every time I turn on the television I am inundated by adverts for the perfect Christmas dinner: the extended family round the table, enjoying turkey with all the trimmings. But in our house, it will be just me, my husband, and our seven-year-old twins. And we’ll be tucking into sausage and mash!
Isaac and Naomi are both on the autism spectrum and they find it very difficult to cope with any kind of change. At this time of year the challenge for me and my husband, Nigel, is to give the children a magical day without breaking the routine that is so important to them. So dinner will be something “normal” and we’ll see grannies, granddads, aunties and uncles separately throughout the holiday.
Isaac and Naomi are affected very differently by their autism, but they are still incredibly close and they absolutely have a special bond.
Isaac is non-verbal, and he has severe learning disabilities and a genetic condition. It was obvious from an early age that he had a global development delay, so we weren’t surprised at all when he received an autism diagnosis at three years and nine months. Naomi, on the other hand, wasn’t diagnosed until she was five. She’s in mainstream school, but she suffers from anxiety, struggles in social situations and is a selective mute.
Having two young children with autism is very difficult, but there is support out there. The National Autistic Society Scotland runs a fantastic helpline that has been a great source of advice and comfort over the years. It is nice to see more and more events and activities popping up that we can enjoy as a family. Last year we went to an autism-friendly pantomime; Isaac spent most of the time playing with the flip seats in the theatre, but he enjoyed himself and everyone understood his behaviour.
Santa Claus doesn’t come to our house. I would love to wake the children up on Christmas Day by shouting “Santa’s been!” and have them run down the stairs in excitement, but I know it just wouldn’t work. For a start, Naomi would have endless sleepless nights worrying about a “stranger” coming down the chimney, even one carrying presents!
The twins don’t like surprises, so having lots of new toys – and having to rip off wrapping paper to discover them – wouldn’t fill them with joy, as it does other children. But I still make a big effort to find presents I know they will really love. These often aren’t big or expensive things. Isaac’s favourite is plastic food, so this year I’m on the hunt for something he hasn’t seen before. If I find a really realistic looking slice of pizza, then he’ll be happy. On his birthday this year we took him to the shops and told him he could choose any toy. He went to the food aisle and picked up a can of beans. And he was delighted with it, so who am I to argue?
Before Christmas, I take all of the new toys out of their packaging and put them in two big crates, which I leave open so that Isaac and Naomi can look inside and take them out if they want to. Sometimes the crates can sit there for weeks and weeks before anything is even touched. I know some families wrap presents in Clingfilm so that their children can have the experience of unwrapping without the element of surprise. We are always creative in the autism community!
Meeting other people’s expectations is the most challenging part of Christmas for us. Everyone is expected to be festive and joyful, people in the street ask the children if they’re excited and don’t understand when they don’t get a response. I know they’re just trying to be friendly, but it can be upsetting. Our Christmas Day will be very different to yours, but it will be just as special!
The thing I’m most excited about this year is seeing Isaac in a Christmas jumper. That might not sound like much, but he has worn his school jumper for the last 678 days; he won’t wear anything else. I’ve been building up to Christmas Day by explaining to him that he needs to wear something different, and he has agreed. So I really can’t wait to take a photo of me and my family, enjoying our Christmas, our way.
• Miriam Gwynne is mum to Isaac and Naomi, seven-year-old twins who are both on the autism spectrum. She is a member of the National Autistic Society Scotland