The year was 1991. Matthew, who had yet to receive a formal diagnosis of autism, was 4, and Andy was 2. My husband and I dressed them in matching reindeer sweaters and took them to the company holiday party, where Santa was making an appearance. Andy climbed into Santa’s lap and asked for a Nerf Bow and Arrow. Matthew was next and asked for a drain. “A train?” Santa asked cheerfully. “No,” Matthew said, “a drain.”

Matthew wanted a drain. He was fascinated with water going down the drain and wanted one of his very own.

Since I was still at the stage where I believed I could “fix” my son, I discounted his drain request and searched for educational toys that would “flip the switch” in his brain — Lincoln logs, painting sets, books, and a Nerf Bow and Arrow just like Andy’s. None of them interested him, and then later we went to my brother’s house for dinner. His daughters had gotten one of those freestanding miniature kitchens with pots, pans, plastic food — and a sink with a drain.

I went out the next day and got one just like it.

The holiday season is full of hopes, dreams, and disappointment for parents of children with special needs. Here are eight things to remember as we stumble into December:

  1. Don’t go too crazy on the decorations. They are fun and festive but provide serious sensory overload for your child.
  2. Don’t go too crazy on the shopping, and keep receipts. Is it just me, or is it one toy that everyone wants to play with, and the rest just sit there?
  3. Is it just me, or are big building blocks the best gift ever?
  4. Take two cars to holiday parties when the whole family is invited. You get the picture.
  5. If you really want to go to a grownup holiday party, get helpers way in advance.
  6. Resist the temptation to go out and buy more stuff the day before Christmas. You have enough.
  7. Brace yourself for meltdowns. Diffuse them as quickly and as calmly as possible.
  8. Remember the meaning of the holiday.

This article first appeared in Shumaker’s blog at SFGate. Reprinted with permission.

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Updated: March 5, 2016