What Christmas is like when your kid has special needs

"Brennen can’t write a letter to Santa. He can’t tell me what he hopes to find under the tree on Christmas morning. He can’t unwrap his own gifts."

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Julie Brocklehurst with her 10-year-old son, Brennen.

I always thought I’d pass along my family’s holiday traditions to my child, but when my son Brennen was born 10 years ago, all our carefully thought-out plans for our family changed in an instant.

Shortly after his birth, Brennen was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The hopes and dreams I’d had for my child were suddenly shattered, and I was shocked and saddened by the challenges I knew he was going to face. Brennen is non-verbal, quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair for mobility; he is dependent on others for every aspect of his care. But despite his challenges, he’s a happy little boy.

For the first few years of his life, I dreaded going to toy stores. (Who am I kidding? I still do.) I avoid them whenever possible, knowing there’s very little available that Brennen can actually “play” with. Christmas shopping is a challenge and, though I try to resist it every year, I inevitably find myself in a toy aisle with tears streaming down my face.

I’m constantly faced with the realization that I’m living in a starkly different world than most other parents. While I dream of wrapping up something my kid will adore—the one thing that will ignite his creativity and give him opportunities to learn and grow—it’s unfortunately not as simple as that.

Finding products and toys that will work for Brennen is difficult. I analyze their potential and ultimately decide they’re not suitable—usually because he can’t physically manipulate them on his own. Sometimes I purchase the toy anyway, in hopes that some miracle will happen and his skills will improve. Sometimes I just want to feel like any other parent shopping at Toys ‘R Us, picking out a present without stressing over whether it’ll be used for its intended purpose.

Christmas is different when you have a kid with special needs. Brennen can’t write a letter to Santa. He can’t tell me what he hopes to find under the tree on Christmas morning. He can’t unwrap his own gifts. I’m not even sure he understands the concept of Christmas. But my husband and I feel it’s important to carry on with the traditions that meant a lot to us when we were growing up. I still get giddy when I hear my favourite Christmas songs or watch my favourite holiday movie. I want that for Brennen, too.

My most cherished Christmas memories don’t have anything to do with presents—it’s simply celebrating the holidays with loved ones that means the most. Brennen enjoys the sights and sounds of Christmas. He loves to look at the twinkly lights on the tree and listens to carols non-stop. He’s happy when surrounded by people, and he certainly knows he’s loved. We don’t go overboard with gifts. On Christmas morning, we take time to help Brennen unwrap each one. He loves the sound of paper ripping! He sense the excitement that comes with each new package. Brennen has taught us to slow down and appreciate the little things.

My one piece of advice for parents of kids with special needs: Don’t put so much pressure on yourself—stop expecting everything to be “perfect.” The holidays are stressful for everyone, and a kid’s special needs adds an extra degree of difficulty. But try not to get caught up in the little details—just enjoy the time with your family. It may not look or sound or feel the way you envisioned, and it may not run as smoothly as you’d hoped, but it can still be special.

It’s your presence, not the presents, that counts most.

Julie Brocklehurst is a writer, advocate and mom to a little boy with cerebral palsy. She created her blog, Tiptoeing Through, so she can share her story about raising a kid with special needs. Each month, Julie features a kid with special needs from Newfoundland and Labrador. She’s also a director on the Board of the Cerebral Palsy Association of Newfoundland, and runs a child care program for kids with disabilities.

Read more:
Best toys for kids with special needs
5 things you should say to parents of kids with special needs
7 things I’ve learned from my daughter’s diagnosis

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