My autism means that I have always had an uneasy relationship with Christmas.
When I was younger, the day involved straightening my unruly curls and getting dressed up for a large gathering at my great grandmother’s house, where my extended family would open gifts, eat turkey, and watch the children perform a re-enactment of the birth of Christ. When the clock struck 12, signalling the hour of Christ’s birth, we all hugged each other to celebrate. Then we went home.
I had fun at these gatherings. Especially when most of my cousins were younger and we’d play tag around the house together. The party was an event with clear steps and expectations and I found comfort in this. As I grew to be a teenager, my Christmases lost the structure provided by the games and they became more about sitting on a couch or at a table and engaging in conversation with cousins and aunts and uncles. It was exhausting. I would think over what I was going to say carefully, but overlapping conversation confused me and I struggled to get a word in. But I tried, again and again.
I did not have words for it then, but my acting always went beyond that small Christmas play about Christ’s birth. It also meant masking my autism from friends and family. I would do it year-round, but Christmas always required an extra effort. I felt that a joyful season should involve joy, or the appearance of joy, at the very least.
I am Salvadoran and appearances matter a lot in my culture. Disability is generally viewed as something to be pitied. So, when I was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 12, my parents chose to act as if I didn’t have autism. They chose not to disclose it to my school to protect me from the stigma associated with it. So, I acted as if I wasn’t autistic—smiling, nodding from time to time to indicate interest, striving to participate at least once or twice, and writing my uglier emotions away into my phone. I kept my secret for several Christmases until my great grandmother died and I moved away to study abroad and the holiday as I knew it gradually faded away
My autism has long been a part of my identity with which I’ve found it hard to reconcile. I used to be hesitant to talk about it and attributed all my issues to shyness, anxiety and just me being weird. This year however, I found my autism hard to ignore.
When COVID-19 struck in March and my last year at university in the U.K. was cut short, I flew to Mexico to join my family. I left in a hurry and wasn’t able to say goodbye to my friends. There was no graduation to solidly put an end to my undergraduate years. And I’ve been in employment limbo for several months. Honestly, this floored me. I love getting up early and ticking things off my beloved to-do, lists but this year I’ve hated them and I’ve hated myself for having more and more days where I can’t seem to get up from bed because everything seems pointless.
Christmas, too, seemed pointless.
My parents realized early on that we would not be spending it in El Salvador. Because cases and deaths in Mexico are rising, because of the costs of airline tickets and obligatory COVID-19 tests, and the possibility of being stranded in case the airport shut down again, my family decided that joining our other family members there this year was not a risk worth taking.. This Christmas will be the first I spend with my parents and sisters in their apartment in Mexico City. If something good has come out of this pandemic, it’s that I have grown closer to my two sisters. Though I’d looked forward to them coming to the UK to see me graduate and showing them around London, spending time with them has made me recognize something important: I’ve always dreaded silence, fearing that others would think of me as dull or unintelligent. Talking was harder for me when I was younger. I couldn’t properly describe what I felt or thought and when I did my speech came out stilted. People would tend to become impatient with me. But the last thing I wanted was to be alone. I’ve drank espressos before parties to make sure I am sufficiently talkative.
Now, when we sit around a table in silence going about our business, I realize I don’t feel any lonelier than I would if we were gathered on the sofa playing Mario Kart or talking about how our days are going during lunch. This year has been tough on my family, too, and just being together and knowing we are not alone has been enough. This Christmas may mark a shift in what this holiday has meant for me. Though it will be a smaller event, this Christmas promises to be less lonely and more focused on the smaller moments of joy that make me love this season: decorating the apartment, having pandoro or panettone (traditional Italian sweet breads) for breakfast, and celebrating the new year by cooking a meal together.
This Christmas I will be myself. And I am okay with that. I am who I am, and to my family, that’s enough.