I remember when I “found out” about Santa. I must have been about 9 or 10 years old. My 17 year old daughter figured it out at around the same age as I did, and my 10 year old son has made some “remarks” about Santa, but hasn’t come right out and asked or made any declarations. I think he wants to play along, thinking maybe he’ll get more stuff as long as he pretends (he’s smart like that, although it would NOT be a factor in our gift giving). Anyway…
My middle child, my daughter with autism, will be 14 years old in a few days, is in 8th grade, and still (until tonight) believed in Santa. Wholeheartedly. Most people with autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD), are very literal thinkers, and my daughter is no exception. But in certain areas, like Santa (and the Easter Bunny, tooth fairy etc…) she has been able to suspend that literal thinking. Perhaps it’s because she is also cognitively delayed (very low IQ). I don’t know.
If she were in a special education school, surrounded by like minded peers, I would not have been concerned. But while she is indeed in a special education class, that class is in a TYPICAL school, and she has homeroom, gym, art and music with typical peers. The closer we have gotten to Christmas, the more she’s been wondering aloud what Santa is going to bring her, and what she wants from Santa. I know talking like this in groups of typical 8th graders is stigmatizing for her without her even knowing or understanding. She’s “different” enough, I don’t want this to impact on her ability to socialize and be accepted by her peers. So I resolved I would talk with her about it. And I was nervous as hell. I wanted to tell her the truth, but I wanted to tell her in such a way that she wouldn’t feel bad about basically being lied to all her life (and I know one autistic child in particular who had this very reaction). I wanted her to feel “grown up” in learning something special. That’s the approach I took.
I told her I was going to share a special grown up secret with her now that she was going to be fourteen. I talked about the historical figure of St. Nicholas (which our kids know about since we’re “churchy” people) and how after he died, people wanted to continue in his example of generosity, and even up to today parents enjoy being St. Nicholas for their children. I then explained that her father and I were being Santa for her and her siblings in the spirit of St. Nicholas. I infused this whole talk with excitement for her that she not only knew a special secret, but could be a part of “knowing” with all the other grown ups, but I also told her that knowing the secret was a serious thing. I explained that now she was a part of keeping the magic and memory of St. Nicholas and Santa alive for little children, and that she must never tell the secret to little ones. She could even help be Santa now!
It seems to have gone over fine. She didn’t cry. She didn’t even frown. I told her it was okay to be sad if that’s how she felt, and she said she felt “tiny tiny” sad, but mostly happy that she knew a grown up secret. Then she asked about her little brother. I told her I wasn’t sure about him, so that until I was sure, she should not say anything to him. She seemed REALLY pleased about maybe knowing something that he didn’t! (typical sibling stuff there!)
I never thought I would have to sit down and have this kind of conversation with one of my kids. I always assumed they’d figure it out eventually. But with autism, you can never assume anything.