Most people look forward to the holiday season with a kind of mania. In the sweltering heat of a late Georgia summer it isn’t uncommon to hear, “Only 120 shopping days until Christmas!” I’ve never enjoyed holiday shopping, but my son’s autism completely cured me of any interest in this phenomenon.
The extra lights, smells, and sounds of the holidays often proved to be a tipping point into complete hysteria for Noah when he was younger. Blinking lights made him squint his little eyes or cover them with his hands. Christmas carols blaring over the speakers in a store declaring that it was “the most wonderful time of the year” were offensive to his sensitive auditory system. Strong smells of cinnamon brooms and pine resulted in repetitive hand flapping and other self-stimulatory activities that do not go ignored by other shoppers. We once went to see a holiday light display at a large garden only to have Noah completely loose his balance and fall in a lily pond. I am convinced he couldn’t even retain his sense of balance because of all the sensory input. It only took a few holiday seasons to leave me feeling particularly “grinchy” about the entire affair.
But worst by far was the assault we would encounter on a simple trip to the grocery store during the holidays. As soon as I would open the car door, Noah would begin frantically chewing on his pacifier (or later a toy) in a fear response. I learned to register his panic and could immediately diagnose the source – that shrill, incessant ringing. Never decreasing in frequency, its high-pitched and piercing clanging grew as you approached the storefront. Some of you know that of which I speak – the Salvation Army bell.
I am convinced that these people do an excellent work, but for the life of me I searched high and low for stores to patronize at which they were absent. The assault brought on by the ringing of those bells caused Noah’s nervous system to be overloaded for hours. It simply was not worth anything I needed from a store if I had to deal with an anxious autistic child for several hours to obtain it.
In subsequent years, Noah would learn to integrate sights and smells into the tangled mass of schema his nervous system interprets. Visiting holiday light displays would become a favorite activity of his. He even learned to tolerate what we came to call the “Santa smell” so that he could visit that jolly old elf and present a handwritten list of toys he wanted for Christmas. But that bell continued to be despised by one and all, causing him to race through parking lots with hands over his ears to escape its alarming sound - until this year.
A few weeks ago we arrived at our neighborhood Kroger store to pick up a few items for supper. I knew the bell was there and had taken Noah by the shoulder as we got out of the car to insure he wouldn’t rapidly run through the parking lot to avoid the noise. Suddenly, Noah turned back to the car saying he had forgotten something. I assumed he was retrieving a toy to manipulate in order to self-soothe or even a set of the earplugs that I keep in the glove box now for such occasions. I saw him hastily shove items in his pocket and return to my side. After we traversed the parking lot he surprised me at the curb by speaking to the Salvation Army bell ringer. We have been working on social skills, but it seemed odd to me that Noah should seek out the perpetrator of our discomfort for a random meet-and-greet. I rushed him into the store and we began our shopping.
At he conclusion of our purchases, I began to maneuver the shopping cart through the automatic door only to have Noah race out in front of me. I hurriedly abandoned the cart to prevent him from dashing into on-coming traffic only to be brought up short by an astonishing sight.
The bell had stopped ringing and Noah was standing face to face with the Salvation Army volunteer. I did not know what he had said to begin the conversation but the response from volunteer was, “Well thank you young man.” And with that, Noah began to empty his pockets into the red cauldron. When Noah had returned to the car for what I assumed was an object to soothe himself, he had actually emptied all of the change from the console. When I arrived at the scene the volunteer said, “Your son just thanked me for my service. What a considerate young man!” I thought, “You have no idea what it took for him to approach you sir.”
Before we walked away Noah insisted on placing a sticker from a roll the lady at the cash register had given him on the apron of the volunteer. The man laughed and smiled and shook Noah’s hand. (If you happen upon a Salvation Army volunteer in the greater Cumming area with an “I’ve Gone Krogering” sticker on their apron you’ll know we’ve been there.) I was overwhelmed with questions as we walked through the parking lot.
Once settled in the car, I asked Noah about what he had done. He said, “That bell is terrible but he is working to be kind for others. That is what I want to be when I grow up. I want a job where I can be kind to others. Its like Jesus.” I suppose sometimes we have to be willing to allow ourselves to be assaulted by the overwhelming and uncomfortable in order to show the kindness Jesus calls us to.
Teachers and administrators at Noah’s school have told me that he displays an atypical amount of empathy for a child with his diagnosis. The word autism comes from the Greek word “autos” meaning “self.” And there is an element of this disease that gives Noah the appearance that he is preoccupied, primarily with himself and his feelings. What I have observed, however, is that this does not mean that Noah does not concern himself with the feelings of others. Rather, as Noah detects the circumstances and feelings of those around him his autism cues him to apply those feelings to himself. In this way, Noah experiences more of the feelings and emotions of those around him – not less. He has more empathy because everything that happens to those around him actually happens to him too.
I believe this is what prompted Noah to actively move beyond his comfort zone to participate in kindness. His life is more experiential than mine. From the excess of senses that his brain funnels through his nervous system to the way he encounters the hardship of others, Noah’s life is more textured and richer because autism gifts him in this way. Astonishingly, his empathy response prevails over the anxiety and fear triggers and Noah can be more like Jesus than I can.
Noah’s occupational goals now include Salvation Army Bell Ringer. God bless us, every one.