Recently a friend of mine posted online a photo of her son sitting on Santa’s lap when he was a baby. It was a darling photo, the kind many parents hope for, full of sweetness and delight.
We do not have a photo like that because we never took our son to sit on Santa’s lap. We never even tried.
Even before his diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, I just knew trying to get a photo would fail. Loading him up in the car — outside of his usual routine — would make him tense. If we had tried at night, it would add an element of an unwanted unusual on top of a day’s worth of sensory stimulus.
The crowded mall with its echoing noises, strange smells, incessant fluorescent lighting, flashes of colors, and movement of many people could have sent him into sensory overload. Add to that standing in what could have been an endless line full of potentially equally unhappy, crying children and it could trigger even more stress for our son.
And top it off with being handed to a potentially terrifying stranger who could barely be seen behind a false beard. It had all the ingredients of a meltdown catastrophe, and I was unwilling to put us all through it.
Still, seeing the adorable photo of my friend’s child, knowing there is a cultural and traditional element to crafting that memory, and seeing the lovely feelings captured in that moment, I wondered for a moment if we missed something.
But just for a moment.
Even though I didn’t have a name for it at the time — autism — I always felt the “traditional” memory of a photo on Santa’s lap would not be worth it to me when I knew, for whatever the reason, it could make my son miserable.
I made a decision early on in my parenting to forgo “traditional” kinds of things if it appeared that trying to achieve it was not going to be worth the cost to get it.
Sometimes we got a first day of school picture. A lot of times we did not, but we got a picture later in the year. We had a photo memory, just not on the first day.
If I were to stop and think about it, we have probably missed out on some common events and experiences because we chose our son’s comfort over a “tradition.”
But what is the point of participating in traditional experiences if we are not really enjoying them? Or worse, causing potential harm by forcing ourselves to do them, because it is a “tradition”?
I think the only feeling I would remember would have been the misery we experienced and guilt for forcing it to happen.
So, yeah, no photo on Santa’s lap.
What we have instead is our son’s trust in us that we won’t force him through hell for a “tradition.”
For me, that is the best feeling of all.