Those with autistic traits can sometimes be mocked for their desire for routine, for consistency, for 'sameness'. But at this time of year I'm reminded that we all have those exact same desires for nothing to change. But if we dress it up as 'tradition' rather than 'obsession' then it becomes far more socially acceptable. "We always have dinner at 2pm"; "we always open our presents first thing"; "we always have a sherry with the Queen's Speech...". Are they really any different?
I remember growing up as a child, and at Christmas I wanted everything to be the same forever. Waking on a Christmas Day morning, my dad would line me and my three brothers on the stairs, oldest first. I was second in line - never before have the five minutes I arrived in this world before my twin brother been so important. Dad would get us to wait in position while he went ahead into the lounge to see if Father Christmas had been. The excitement, the tension... the entire 365 days since we were last stood in this spot had all just been waiting time for this moment. Dad would open the lounge door, just enough for him to step inside but not enough for us to see no matter how hard we strained our necks over the bannister. I'm sure the silence that followed only lasted seconds, but at the time it felt like forever.
"Oh no... No... Please, no...", he'd step back into the hall, disappointment etched on his face. "Mum!", he'd call up the stairs, "You need to come down... I'm sorry boys. He hasn't been. I don't know what we're going to do. There's nothing for you. I'm so sorry, lads. You'd better come and see..."
Every year of my childhood this ritual was performed. Yet every year we believed him. And then we'd file into the lounge and by the light of the Christmas tree we'd discover that He had very much been after all... "Happy Christmas, boys", Dad would say, his grinning face lighting the dark corners of the room that the tree lights didn't reach.
In my lifetime I've now had more Christmas's without Dad around than I spent with him. And he probably never realised it at the time, but those few moments of routine on Christmas Day morning have left an indelible mark on me forever. He constantly worried that he wasn't educated enough, or earned enough, or was good enough. As parents we spend so much time worrying about the big things that sometimes we forget the small ones. I don't even remember the presents I received each year. But if anyone ever asks me to define the true meaning of happiness in my life, it will forever be shaped by the memory of standing on the stairs on a cold December morning, waiting to see if He's been...
Normally The Boy hates having his photo taken. If I turn on the iPad there are hundreds of "selfies" there, photos he's taken of himself, each following the other in one spontaneous 7 minute frenzy. But taken by other people, there aren't many. It's difficult to get him to pose as he hasn't quite distinguished the difference between "smile, please" and "grimace". Each posed photo looks like he's being held down against his will and just off-camera someone's giving him a Chinese burn. The photos when he doesn't know it's coming, taken off-guard and without his knowledge, they're the photos to cherish, the ones that manage to capture the very essence of him.
Then, two years ago, I was asked to be Santa in a grotto for a children's party. I agreed. Like most immature men of advancing years I had a costume at the ready and a body that had been in training for such a momentous occasion. And then it dawned on me... I realised The Boy would have to come with me.
I sat him down and explained that Father Christmas had asked us to do him a favour. The Big Man couldn't make it to the party himself as he was so busy getting ready, and could we help him out. I would be Father Christmas, and he'd asked The Boy to be an Elf. He happily agreed. I had visions of us becoming the new festive version of Stavros Flatley - everyone would talk for years to come about the incredible father-son combo taking the grotto world by storm...
At first the Elf costume was of course too itchy and the pointy ears I purchased were never going to happen. Nor the red, rosy cheeks... But after some cajoling and with "normal" clothes underneath, the Elf was almost dressed for the occasion.
I'll be honest, I hadn't really thought the whole thing through. I imagined it would just be Santa sitting in his big chair while at his feet sat his dough-eyed Elf looking up at him with wide-eyed wonderment, passing presents to the delightful children who wandered in.
Hurdle number one once we arrived was trying to remind The Boy not to call me Daddy. "It's your name", he said. I reminded him that I was meant to be Santa and he was meant to be an Elf. He nodded, said "I know", and then called me Daddy every time he spoke to me. I just told all the bewildered looking children and parents that filed in that "I was like a father" to the Elves in the Workshop...
And so began one of the strangest 90 minutes of my life. The Boy loved every bit of it. In between banging presents on the floor and eating mince pies, it turned out he had quite a lot to say to the children who came to visit Santa that day. As gentle Christmas music filled the newly formed Grotto, I gave a performance Sir John Gielgud would have been proud of. As I talked wistfully about magic dust and children sleeping soundly as the sleigh bells tinkled into the cold December night, the Elf would interject continuously.
"BE GOOD OR YOU WON'T GET ANYTHING", he barked at them, "WILL THEY DADDY?"
As I asked each child what they wanted for Christmas, the Elf would once again pass his opinion.
"I'VE GOT THAT".
"YOU CAN'T WATCH THAT. IT'S GOT SWEARING IN."
Then came the lovely photograph with Father Christmas, a memory to cherish for years to come. And as each parent went to capture the moment, with perfect timing a wild-eyed grimacing Elf would suddenly leap up filling the screen where their loved one was meant to be.
Finally as the child went to leave, I asked the Elf to pass me a small wrapped present for them to take away. Each time he just threw the present in the general direction of the door for them to collect on their way out.
"IT'S A SELECTION BOX... THEY'RE ALL THE SAME"
Sometimes it takes an anniversary of doing something you've done for years to remember just how far The Boy has come. This week that reminder came in the form of the Christmas Tree.
The tree used to be such an upheaval for him. And you can't blame him really... Things were going quite nicely in his world, he knew where he was with everything and then once a year Dad would insist on moving the furniture round and sticking a 7ft plastic tree with flashing lights in the middle of the lounge where the TV should be. Little wonder it was pulled down every other day.
But now we've become accustomed to it. The tree has become part of our routine like everything else. The same tree, with the same decorations, in the same place... Granted, if Dad had known the tree was meant to last ten years he might have bought one other than the Argos Value one he got at the time, but it's our tree all the same.
The Boy doesn't help with decorating the tree. Boring. I learned my lesson last year when I insisted he help and he just lined up all the same size baubles of the same colour on the same branch. Instead, he just turns up now for the big Switch On. Much like Regent Street had the Spice Girls this year to turn on their lights, in 2013 we once again had The Boy in his pants to do ours.
We even have a fairy nowadays too, sitting atop surveying the chaos below. For two years she was abandoned in the cupboard and replaced with a sellotaped-on Power Ranger. I reminded him of it the other day, and I could see on his face that look of "Let's do that again!!!". But, he let it go...
The tree is in the lounge, which has recently been christened "My Room". The Boy's bedroom next door is now apparently "His Room". Given he spends so much time in there, I asked if he'd like to get some Christmas decorations for "His Room" too. To my surprise, he said yes. So off we went to the Pound Shop.
The Pound Shop is perfect for us, not least because it's a pound shop. The Boy still hasn't fully grasped the concept of money, and although he is getting better at it he still thinks purely in terms of "how many things can I have?". And the Pound Shop is the only place where I can be sure I'm giving the right answer without bankrupting myself. Ten things. Ten things to decorate your room for Christmas.
You can imagine how tasteful the bedroom now looks. Resplendent in all its glory. It has been decorated with all the subtlety of a Royal British Legion Social Club function room. And in the middle of it all on his chest of drawers sits the elixir of life. The very reason to get up in the morning. His chocolate advent calendar. Breakfast.
Oh, and for designers of chocolate advent calendars, I've got a message for you. The Boy tells me he could do your job better than all of you. You can't even put the numbers 1 to 24 in the right order...
This blog is about bringing up The Boy. He's 12 years old and autistic. It's written by The Dad. It's my words, my view. Other people will think differently and have different opinions. Good.