By Laurie Foos
The other day, while my son sat playing Minecraft in the kitchen, he turned to me and said, “I’d better be good this year, so Santa brings me what I want.”
I looked up at him from across the table and smiled.
“I’m always good,” he said. “Santa will bring me lots of toys.”
This, I’d imagine, is the kind of conversation that many parents are having in some form or other all over the place, while their kids write letters to the North Pole and make wishes on Christmas Eve. In that respect, things are no different in our house. Things are no different for my son, Zachariah, who has mailed his letter to Santa and who looks for the elves every morning after they’ve moved mysteriously in the night. My son, like other children, is the kind of kid, who, pre-pandemic, would look up at Santa in a shopping mall with eyes shining and then talk to him shyly about what toys he hoped he might bring.
This year, my son, like millions of other kids, will wait for Santa—except, my son is now fourteen.
My son, who has just moved up to the high school (remotely), has autism and intellectual disabilities. Not only does he still believe, but it has never occurred to him to consider that Santa might not be the one wrapping those presents and placing them under the tree. In fact, with an IQ of 70, I don’t think he has the capacity for figuring it out.
Whether to allow him to continue to believe hadn’t been an issue until a recent conversation with his Special Education teacher. My son is now in a Life Skills course, which means essentially that the program focuses on what we in the special needs world know as “adaptive living skills”—cooking, doing laundry, working with money. When she called me last week to let me know they’d be doing an overview of the holidays, I let her know, with a kind of chuckle (because I was worried about judgment), that my son still believes in Santa Claus.
“You’re kidding!” the teacher said, and she laughed, too, but not with the same kind of self-deprecating chuckle I’d used. “Well, I should tell you that if we talk about Santa in the classroom, I don’t talk about him as if he’s real. The older kids would think I’m babying them.”
I hung up soon after and felt a heaviness move over me. As I sat there on the edge of my bed, I wondered: was I babying him? And should I tell him before one of the other kids did?
As a single mom, most of these decisions fall to me. I did check in with his dad, who said he thought the likelihood that he’d hear one of the older kids saying something was minimal, given that he’s the only remote student and shares only one period with the larger class. I went to my daughter, who’s fifteen and neurotypical, for her opinion. She wondered if he was pretending to for my benefit. I’ve always been as open as possible with her about her brother’s disabilities, since she was old enough to understand.
“I’ll ask him,” she said. “He’ll tell me the truth.”
Later that night, she came into my bedroom and said that he definitely still believes. “Of course I do,” he’d said. Her shoulders sagged; she almost winced.
When he was younger, my son’s disabilities seemed less pronounced when compared with his peers. He could play hide and seek and go down the slide on the swing set along with his sister’s friends when she had play dates. But as the years have gone by and her interests have matured, her brother clearly struggles to keep up with the fast-paced teenage repartee. And so, his believing in Santa felt to my daughter, I think, like one more reminder of her brother’s difference. It was one more reminder that he is fourteen…but not fourteen.
My daughter felt that I should tell him. If he were physically in school, I may have agreed, and probably would have done so before now, before the tree and the lights and wreaths were up, before we put up a twelve-foot inflatable Santa in the front yard. Telling him now to me felt cruel. Still, the teacher’s notion about a belief in Santa being seen as “babyish” lingered in my mind. He is in high school now, after all—albeit virtually, but in high school all the same. The line between encouraging my son’s increased maturity and accepting my son for who he is suddenly felt hazier.
Like many mothers do in our digital age, I polled Facebook, both in my larger feed and on the group pages I subscribe to for other special needs moms, the ones that save me when I lie staring at the ceiling and worrying about his future long into the night. On the special needs parenting boards, the replies were swift. “My daughter is nineteen and still believes,” wrote one mom. Other moms chimed in about their teenaged kids, many of them older than my son, who still believed. “My son has intellectual disabilities, too. He still believes,” one mother wrote. “He’s thirty-six.”
On my personal Facebook page, I received nearly two hundred responses. There were several who felt I should tell him, but overwhelmingly, they thought I should not worry about the teacher and go with my gut. Especially right now, in the midst of a pandemic, many of them wrote, we all need some magic. Why take that away from him? “This year has been so terrible,” another friend wrote. “Let him have Santa.”
Of course, it’s true; the year has been terrible. Certainly, it’s been more terrible for any of us who have lost loved ones, who couldn’t mourn, or who may have lost jobs and businesses, the kinds of losses my son cannot understand. Still, because of his fear of the virus, his iffy immune system, and my discomfort with the risk, we have been at home, essentially, since March.
I don’t begrudge the teacher her viewpoint; but she is an educator, and I am his mother. No one knows him the way that I do. It’s also occurred to me that, even if I did tell him the truth, he might not believe me. My one rule of thumb regarding his behaviors has been the questions psychologists have told me to ask: is it interfering in his life and ability to function? And is it harming himself or others?
Maybe next year, when he’s back in school with the older kids, when we return to some form of normalcy, I’ll feel differently. But for now, I am making a choice for my son’s well-being, because it is my job to do so. And I am choosing magic.
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