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November 23, 2010

Antoinette van Heugten on Holidays with Special Needs Children

Posted by Anonymous

AntoinetteVanHeugten.jpgToday’s guest blogger is international trial lawyer turned author Antoinette van Heugten, whose first novel --- SAVING MAX --- appeared on bookshelves this September. Below, she shares some heartwarming holiday memories from her sons’ childhoods, shedding light on the experiences that inspired her stunning debut.

We have sons with varying degrees of autism, and while much is made of the challenges of raising these children, too little is said of the laughter and joy they bring to us with their unique personalities and senses of humor. Now that the season is finally upon us, I’d like to share a few of my holiday memories of our boys when they were young.

Christmas, of course, is an exciting and sometimes overwhelming time for all young children. In our house, it was something akin to a nuclear explosion. Two of our sons were unbelievably hyperactive on normal days, but on Christmas morning, they were like Mexican jumping beans on speed. Our youngest literally ran around the house, a whirling dervish who jumped up and down and spun like a top. 

Our rule on Christmas morning was that no presents were opened until the parents had had coffee and breakfast. Making sure that we did was our youngest son’s specialty. Even at five o’clock in the morning, he was able to make coffee faster than any crazed caffeine-lover, and he brought it in to us on a tray while we were still in bed. He would then insist that my husband get up and help with “breakfast.” To him, that meant making what he called “kookamook pie,” which was actually a simple custard, but one that he considered his own culinary invention. He whipped up the custard, made primarily by my husband, and proudly served it to us. But, of course, he never ate a bite of it, informing us that he didn’t like it. Then it was on to the houses of our family and friends. On one particular Thanksgiving evening, we were serving ourselves buffet-style at a friend’s home, when he marched up to the turkey, grabbed the serving fork, and proceeded to hoist the entire bird onto his plate. He then calmly took the host’s seat at the head of the table. Like many Asperger’s children, he was socially oblivious to the fact that anyone else might want just a sliver of turkey. Although it was quickly retrieved for the other guests, it was a humorous example of how many Asperger’s children live in their own world and, when young, cannot read social cues --- particularly when anyone else’s desires are concerned.   

On Christmas mornings, our middle child waited (if you can call it that) for breakfast to be over. Until he was about 12, he always asked for the same thing: Legos. And not, of course, the small boxes from Toys-R-Us that made miniature, strange-looking robots. No, he was only satisfied with the enormous Lego sets --- the ones that come in boxes as big as a moving carton and cost as much as the moon. We typically bought him two. He would rip open the boxes in record time and then proceed to put the highly intricate monster together in literally an hour --- a common feat that some Asperger’s kids are able to do. Afterwards, we suffered as he insisted on explaining and demonstrating to us in great detail how he put every piece together. Once the Legos were constructed and he was convinced that his thick parents sufficiently appreciated his brilliance, he never played with them again.

My favorite memory, however, is of our oldest autistic son, who was --- and still is --- obsessed with cowboys, Indians and the Civil War. From a young age, he would hone in on any book or video that was even remotely related to those subjects and pore over them as if they imparted the meaning of life. Now, at 26, he can describe every single battle that took place in the Civil War, including the names of all the generals and soldiers involved and the number of casualties in each --- a genuine savant in that area. 

One Christmas evening when he was about 13, we sat completely exhausted in the kitchen, dipping into second helpings of pie, when I suddenly heard him stomping upstairs and belting out loud, unintelligible noises in his room. When I went to see what was going on, I was completely speechless --- a rare experience for me. There he was, wearing his brand-new cowboy hat and boots, grinning proudly and marching back and forth…naked as a jaybird. It was a sight I certainly will never forget!

But most of all, I remember the smiles, laughter and love of those days. Unlike some autistic children, ours have always been very physically affectionate. The lights in their eyes, the joy and high spirits in our home, and those absolutely irreplaceable hugs are what spring into my mind when I think of their childhood. And the memories of that time will last forever.

Tomorrow, bestselling author Beth Hoffman shares the story of how she became a booklover.