It’s widely accepted that genetics are at least partially responsible for a person being autistic. The condition does tend to “run in families”, although of course it is hard to pinpoint, given that awareness and diagnosis are relatively modern phenomena.
My family is no exception. When I went for my diagnosis, from my descriptions of my childhood and family background the psychiatrist actually said she could be halfway to diagnosing my late mother just from what I told her! My father also exhibited many typical autistic traits. A common feature of autism is a love of routine and that is something that characterised my childhood to a remarkable degree. Everything was pretty structured and things that disrupted the normal routine were seen as challenging, especially by my mother.
One of the times this was most noticeable was at Christmas, especially as I look back now although even at the time I knew our festive celebrations were not like most families’. I always heard of kids getting up at ungodly hour to find their presents and diving in to unwrap them, before spending a day gorging themselves on treats while playing with their gifts. This is totally alien to me.
We would get up at 7am. That was what time my mum said we could get up, so that’s what time we got up. Once everyone was awake (me, my sister, my parents and my maternal grandmother, who spent every Christmas at our house), we would gather in my parents’ room, where my dad would bring tea and coffee for everyone and it would be time for us kids to open our presents. But it was no free-for-all. We would take turns, my sister and I alternately grabbing a parcel out of our respective sacks, reading out loud who it was from and then unwrapping it while everyone watched. No time to properly examine or open up the gifts or to start playing with them if you wanted. But surely after we’d finished, we could go off and start enjoying them, right? Wrong. After we had finished it was time for the breakfast break, followed by the adults’ turn to open their presents. This followed a similar format, taking turns, reading out the label and unwrapping until all were finished. This whole process, as you can imagine, took up a sizeable chunk of the morning. We did then get a little time to examine presents in more detail, but we would really be expected to be in the living room with the adults and have a drink while waiting for lunchtime to arrive (and helping to prepare it when we got a bit older).
Christmas dinner was eaten relatively early, around 12 or 12.30 mainly. Most families have a traditional dinner so I guess this was the most “normal” part of the day. It was always delicious and we were always stuffed afterwards. I think it was my favourite part of the day. You’re probably thinking that then we’d have a chance to enjoy our presents or just be kids. Wrong again. We usually managed to watch Christmas Top of The Pops on TV, but we also had to prepare for the family teatime get-together. On Christmas day we always went to an extended family party at one of my mum’s relative’s houses (we never, ever hosted). The parties themselves were a bit of a drag as I recall. As we were the youngest kids in our generation, we were expected to join in with the adults in conversation and parlour games, rather than having space to play or take some favourite presents with us. The buffet tea was always superb but to be honest I’d have sooner had a slice of toast at home and an opportunity to relax.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we went to the party, we had to do our homework – making sure we knew off by heart what every single person who would be attending had bought us, so we could thank them by mentioning the specific gift. And if anyone had got us clothes, we had to wear them for the party of course. This process took up most of the afternoon, until it was time to go. The parties never went on late, but it was pretty much bedtime by the time we got home.
So that was our Christmas Day. Every year. In our way, I guess we enjoyed them because we didn’t know anything else, but I was always astounded by other kids’ tales of the lack of structure and compulsion in their celebrations. Do I resent it? Not really, although there was a time in early adulthood when I certainly did. We had a loving home, a close family, presents and great food (and a few drinks once old enough!). Many people were much worse off. And as I hear of so many people who were never close to parents or siblings, or became estranged later in life, I am truly grateful to have had such a stable family in which we celebrated together, albeit in our own, uniquely organised and routine way.
My parents and grandmother are all long since passed away and it’s all just memories – a mixture of a bit of a funny anecdote about my slightly bonkers family and a strong piece of evidence for autism being passed down the generations. Whatever you are doing this festive season, enjoy it and most of all appreciate the people you are with. They may be weird, but they are your people and your life would be less without them.