The Presence of Christmas
by Donna Williams
If presents were love, then I was loved in abundance because in a family poor or rich (and I’d seen both), as a child I was not one who went without presents.
But presents are not love and no amount of presents can make up for a lack of protection or freedom, respect or boundaries, understanding or discipline, kindness or guidance or equality and comprehensible consequences. I have had presents from people who have loved me and from those who have tried even when they are too broken to have done so healthily. One thing, however, is being mono with no simultaneous sense of self and other, my reactions were pretty irrelevant to who was doing the giving.
And auties can have some strange reactions to presents.
Some I’d like to recall for you.
I was given a Peter Rabbit book when I was 6 by a child from school. I loved the picture on the front, the feel of the glossy pages, the smell, but being meaning deaf to words, though I could read, I didn’t even learn to read writter words with meaning till I was 9 (and couldn’t understand three sentences heard in a row with meaning till after 9 either)
Presents weren’t wrapped till I was about 12. Nor were they given.
There was no point wrapping them as I’d avoid any expectation or confrontational (invasion) to unwrap them.
There was no point offering them directly as I’d avoid taking them or acknowledging them.
So presents were left unwrapped, in various locations around the living room.
And nobody WATCHED… that’s the important part.
Being accustomed to what was and wasn’t in the living room I’d go in on Christmas day and see things in there that smelled new with shiny surfaces and colors.
My older brother would seize on things excitedly and as he was not invading my space, I generally picked up the feeling that these new things were ok to look at, touch, smell or pick up.
When I was 7, one of these new things was a white bunch of flat wooden blocks with a glossy, corrugated shiny red triangle on top with a good knocking noise and lots of little plastic gadgets, some which you could chew and others which were brittle but tapped well. So I picked up the red triangle and played this new musical instrument like a wash board as I walked about with it as though it was a new kind of piano accordian. Then I disassembled the flat white blocks, putting them into size groups where they belonged and sorted the chewable plastic objects from the tappable brittle ones. Finally happy I’d thouroughly worked through the mysteries of this new toy my mother had by now entered the room and was not too impressed with how I’d disassembled the dolls house…. you see to her it was something quite different, a white doll’s house with a red roof and small furniture and little dolls.
What this shows is that the nature of a gift is in the eyes or processing of the beholder.
Another time I got a music box and loved its shiny suface and the smell inside. The music was moving, deep and rich, but it moved me so much my immature nerous system went spaz and then I became scared of the music, so I wouldn’t play it. One could think it was not appreciated but it was, it was too appreciated. And I wouldn’t put things in it, I didn’t want to mess it up as a thing in its own right. One could imagine I didn’t like it, but I did.
I got dolls. That was a mistake. I would play with their hair and remove their clothes but that was all. Their faces scared me. I didn’t want replicas of humans facing me or around me. How anyone could assume this was a wonderful thing was beyond me. When I was older I was so relieved to exit their existance… phew!
I got a sketch-o-graph thing when I was about 9… you know, those things to draw with controlled by those little wheels… I’d had those scribble pads with the pen thingy you could write with then erase the page so this seemed the ‘high tech’ alternative! (well it was the 1970s folks)… but it was beyond me. One had to co-ordinate left and right controls to draw a straight line and I had all left, no right or all right, no left… using two hands together on something was almost impossible. So I’d been given an instrument of frustration!
I got a spiro-graph (another 1970s invention) when I was 10 or so which was a thing with wheels in it that you could make spirals with… good observation given I would trace the patterns in wallpaper and paw over wallpaper books for hours on end, BUT… it required the use of both hands together each doing different things….when I traced wallpaper patterns my hands moved as mirrors of each other. Another instrument of frustration that I looked at the box a hundred times wishing I was that person, that multi-track person but for four years that box sat up in the cupboard looking back at me.
I was given a book on making puppets when I was 10 (another good observation as I turned socks into puppets all the time… good modelling from the environment)… but the book had instructions and I had only learned to read words with meaning when I was 9 and instruction books, even instruction pages require not just interpretive processing for meaning but also capacity to hold sequence without tumbling effects, neither of which I had. So I smelled and stroked the pages and looked at this book like it was of some foreign world I wished I belonged to. It at least made me wish.
I was given a book on making pictures with pins and string and though I couldn’t read it with meaning or follow an instruction, I managed to copy the pictures… success!
I was left statues in my room for discovery when I was about 10. They were great. Being small, I could see them as a whole where anything larger was fragmented unless it was placed across the room. I liked them so much I put them in my mouth and put them on the record turntable so I could watch them turn in circles. When I turned the speed up to make the circles go faster they flew off. After breaking them I realised I’d rather not spin them.
I was left mini cutlery when I was about 10 which I tapped as musical instruments and caught reflection in. Then, happy with these, I dropped them out of my window, into the guttering of the roof where they sat for years outside my windows. I’d done this because I liked them so much that I wanted to see them fall through space. Other things I liked got thrown down the stairs for the same reason.
My brother got monopoly and I was expected to play. I gathered all the different color cards into their color groups and wouldn’t allow them to get mixed. I put my houses and hotels into my mouth and kept confiscating the playing pieces… not fun for the brother! If you are going to give such a thing to the non-autie sibling at least give them a friend to play it with in non-autie fashion!
My brother and I were given a badminton set when I was about 11. I took my racket and shuttle, stuck the shuttle in my mouth and went outside boinging myself on the head rhythmically with the racket as I walked happily in circles.
I was left a typewriter when I was 9 which I took months to touch and finally began typing letter strings, then word strings then word lists then list-poetry, then ‘poetry’ by the age of 13.
I was left a sewing machine when I was about 11 and fabric and my aunt sat sewing on it, ignoring me, till curious and uninvaded I came over to watch and without any invasion she assisted me in sweing two pieces together. After she left I sewed more pieces together and made patchwork. I’m still horribly dyspraxic as a machinist… up, down, left, right, unpicked ten times, but I CAN sew.
I was left paints and a canvas at 12 and did a painting. Then, terrified someone would see it painted over it and hid it in the roof (I couldn’t stand attention or compliments). Later I did another one on a piece of wood and hid that too. When the paint ran out I had no social communication and little functional language to ask for more so painting went on hold till my 20s.
My father had a way of giving involving insisting the gift was his and you couldn’t have it till you were curious enough to try to see it and then snatch it. In this way I got a small statue of a cupid that I kept in my pocket for years till I dropped it and it broke. I loved it very much. I was as miserable then as someone who had suffered a death. My father repaired it with fibreglass. I still have it.
My favorite things of all time were that statue, a small green plastic ball I had for many years and carried all the time and a tuning fork I carried for years when I was older.
At 12 a visitor gave me a wrapped present. I took it, looked at it, then tried to give it back. I was told it was mine, which was clearly not true as it was clearly theirs, not mine. On insistance, I opened it, then wished mightily to discard it as it was not mine nor did it interest me as a bottle of smelly fluid. It may as well have been a urine sample, but it was, in fact, a bottle of perfume. They sprayed me with it to demonstrate. It was overpowering, stunk and made me feel ill and now it was on ME! eeeeeek. Damned visitors! Not impressed!
I was also given a hessian bag with a fancy string overlay by other visitors that same night. I was asked by the gawking visitor, ‘do you like it’ and I replied, honestly, ‘no’. My mother apologised on my behalf and then I preceded to rip the string overlay off the bag. I was thought to be destroying it but I was ‘restoring’ it. For it had all this fashionable mess on the outside, complicating a perfectly good bag. When I managed to achieve my goal, ridding the plain hessian bag of its distracting trimmings, I was satisfied that I now knew what it was and considered it useful so, yes, it wasn’t too bad at all.
In Italy after a conference in my 30s, the host gave me a gift. I liked it but it was all joined up. So I took the brass bits off the ends, tore off the wonderful tassles, took the nice metal poles out of the fabric then put each piece in its special place. She was a bit disappointed and thought I didn’t like it. I replied that it was lovely. I now had a wonderful collection of craft materials. Unfortunately she had given me a wall hanging representing their town. It was now in pieces.
One year Chris gave me the most wonderful paper… mother of pearl pastel pink, full of rainbows. I can’t remember the present but I adored the paper for hours.
Some of the best things for presents for sensory, mono people? (my own bias only)
Wallpaper sample books, carpet sample books, fabric sample books, collections of patent leather shoes and bags, bells, a box of fabulous shreddable leaves, a collection of dandelions gone to seed, a box of snappable twigs, safe miniature reflective mirrors, tuning forks, chandellier crystals, pieces of velvet or satin ribbon, collections of keys, pairs of colored glasses or colored celophane, spinnable ‘lazy susan’ and things to spin on it, a tyre swing, a slippery squidgey satin cushion, snow domes, unbreakable plastic bottles full of water and glitter, tinsel to dive into, a dry mulch pile, a gravel pile, abalone shell, carpet rolls that echo, tobogan and snow! Experiences are one of the best gifts, a trip to the laundrette to watch dryers spin, time under a bridge to play with echo, a trip to the chandellier department of a lighting shop, a carpet store, or a shoe store with patent leather shoes or a butterly house.
So, when you have Christmas with your auties or birthdays or any other time of presents, remember, the nature of the gift is in the eye of the beholder and the delivery matters far more than what’s delivered.
If you have someone who doesn’t like to be invaded, watched, asked, whilst processing something new, let them discover a present in their own way, time and space. Giving isn’t with string attached (unless its a hessian bag!) so let them come to peace with whatever they’ve been given. Once it left your hands it is not yours, not even in how it is perceived, appreciated or discarded so don’t take any of it personally. I always admired those who risked giving me anything, however they managed to. Never become so afraid you can’t control someone’s reaction that you rvert instead to giving monetary cheques. Sure, some people like money but I see this strange paper exchange as symptomatic of people who have become afraid to dare. And time, understanding, respect these are the greatest gifts and a cheque can’t buy them or replace them.
If someone doesn’t like being gawked at with some hawk watching, waiting, wanting to pounce on their every reaction to the point the social phobe dare not show one, then chill out, back off, be fly on the wall… even open your own present instead of watching people watch theirs… on Christmas, if you are with cat-people, don’t sit their like a dog, ok? And if you are a wag-tailed dog, eager to share and watch and wait and enthuse… then phone the non-autie neighbours you haven’t seen all year and get together with them so you feel your own normality has its place too.
Happy Christmas and Season’s Greetings folks.
In my own dairy free, gluten free and low salicylate way, I’ll be celebrating it with you.
Donna Williams *)
Donna Williams *)
Ever the naughty Autie.