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Her Autistic Son Showed Her That Nothing Is Impossible at Christmas

Adding the star to the top of the tree was a big step for her little boy.

Christmas Eve. My husband and our three children were gathered in the living room. The presents were wrapped under the tree, which was decorated in all its glory. For the third year in a row, it was missing only one thing—the star topper.

Liliana and Landon were born first, and decorating the tree soon became the focus of our Christmas traditions. Only when we were all done would we lift one of the kids up high to place the star on top. “The star that shone with promise,” I told the kids. It was an important job, so Liliana and Landon alternated years.

Then along came Finn. He was a happy baby, until Matt and I noticed changes in him at 14 months. Finn no longer slept well. He was grumpy and fussy, not using words. He didn’t engage with me, Matt or his siblings anymore. It was as if Finn had gone inside himself and couldn’t come back out. His autism diagnosis at 18 months gave us some direction in terms of professional care. But how to be the family Finn needed us to be was a question I asked myself almost every day, as my husband and I raised all three children. In so many situations, I didn’t have an answer.

Finn turned three, and I hoped he was ready to take part in adding the final touch to our tree. It would be his first time, a chance to connect with us through this tradition. Matt took the older kids’ hands and stepped back to give us some room. I took the star from its box. “Here, Finn,” I said, putting the star in his little hand. “It’s your turn to put this on the top of the tree!” I went to pick him up. Finn stiffened. He threw the star on the floor and squirmed in my arms.

“Finn,” I said, soothingly. “It’s okay, hon.” Still, he fought me. Finally, I put him down. I wanted to try again, but he ran away. “Finn!” I called after him, but he ignored me.

“Give him time,” Matt said. It didn’t feel right to let Liliana or Landon place the star instead. It was Finn’s turn, and I didn’t want to leave him out. What message would that send to his siblings?

So the tree remained starless that Christmas. The next Christmas too. And the one after that, waiting for Finn. This year, I’d left the star in its box. I hadn’t even tried to get six-year-old Finn interested. I looked over to where he was playing by himself, his brother and sister fussing with the tree. We’d grown used to Finn’s behaviors, but I couldn’t help but think his detachment this Christmas Eve represented so much more—all the things in life that Finn was missing. Would always miss out on. That would be impossible for him. Like the star. Was the Lord watching over Finn? I often wondered. Did Finn know God loved him?

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy helped Finn communicate, which lessened his frustrations at home, but he still struggled to interact with people. If he didn’t get his way, he was prone to meltdowns. Especially when we deviated from our usual comings and goings. Christmastime offered nothing but distractions from routine, with its gift-giving, cookie-making, the town parade. Christmas seemed to hold no special meaning for Finn. He was mostly indifferent to our traditions.

Last year I finally moved his untouched Christmas presents to the garage, until I rewrapped them for his birthday. This year we’d decided to skip the parade. Finn had no sense of danger and lately had refused to stay in a stroller. I couldn’t risk him running out into the street, screaming while other parents looked on, their expressions quietly judgmental. I’d felt so guilty telling Liliana and Landon that we couldn’t go to the parade as a family because it wasn’t safe for their brother. “Finn ruins everything!” Landon wailed. It broke my heart. I used to dream of him and Finn being best buddies, but Finn’s autism made that seem impossible. Sometimes it felt as if it made Christmas impossible too.

I brought some cookies into the living room, determined to keep Christmas Eve what it was meant to be. I would give thanks for my family and our beautiful tree, star or no star. My mother-in-law dropped by to give her gifts to the kids. Liliana and Landon were practically vibrating with excitement. “Come on, Mom!” said Landon. “Let’s do this.” I cast a glance over at Finn, still playing on his own. With a sigh, I sat down on the couch. Finn would get to his gifts in his own time. Or not. It was impossible to tell.

Liliana and Landon smothered their grandmother while she sorted the presents. Finn wandered over. He pulled on my sleeve to get my attention. I looked at him, and he pointed to the top of the tree. I was almost afraid to say it: “The star?” I asked.

Finn nodded. I hurried to get the topper before he changed his mind. I handed him the star. He gripped it tightly, determinedly. I could feel the other kids holding their breath. Matt scooped him up, raising Finn onto his shoulders for a good reach. My heart pounded. Finn held on to the star.

“Go, Finn!” Liliana said. “You can do it!”

Finn set the star on the uppermost branch and slowly drew back his hand. We all cheered. Finn looked down at us from atop his dad’s shoulders and beamed like a star himself.

I had been so wrong. Nothing is impossible at Christmas.

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