Benj, a child with autism, was aloof and distant. His mother, Priscilla, was desperate to reach him. How did she do it? Call it a holiday miracle.

By Priscilla Gilman
Updated December 05, 2014
xmas tree with stockings
Credit: Tanya Little/Getty Images

Ever since I was a little girl, nothing signaled the advent of the holidays more than the appearance of Christmas specials on television. Every Sunday, starting the weekend after Thanksgiving, my sister and I would snatch up our family's New York Times and circle all the specials that would air in the upcoming week. They generally appeared just once each holiday season, so the showings were big events. My sister and I, usually snuggled up together in our parents' bed in front of a small TV screen, would watch and listen, captivated, as the mellow, familiar strains of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime Is Here" began and snow gently fell on Lucy, Schroeder, and the other "Peanuts" characters skating across a frozen pond.

Last holiday season, with a similar sense of anticipation and wonder, I curled up almost every night in December to watch these specials, but now I was on the brown leather sofa in my living room, sitting close to my 14-year-old son, Benj. Yes, my husband, my younger son, and my stepdaughter also love these shows, but Benj and I share a rhapsodic passion for them. What makes this all the more meaningful is that he was never supposed to be able to make this kind of emotional connection to the stories in these TV programs, or to me. This is because Benj is autistic.

For my generation of adults, it's no mystery what draws us to these 1960s- and 70s-era specials—A Charlie Brown Christmas, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town. The music is familiar and memorable, the production is charmingly low-tech; we are swept away into nostalgia for the simpler time of our childhoods, when pressures were fewer, magic was greater, and we still believed in flying reindeer. These shows enchant us with dreams of our youth. Because of their perennial appeal, watching them has become a deeply communal act. So people gather around to watch the Grinch or Charlie Brown even if they don't celebrate the holiday. It has the heady feel of a collective observance.

For Benj, these shows hold another attraction as well: Virtually all depict dramas of acceptance—Rudolph accepted back into the fold; the Grinch welcomed into the circle of Whos; Charlie Brown ushered into a happy chorus of children. Coincidentally or not, each of the shows is a poignant parable about embracing individuals who are a little different or odd. That is a powerful message to any child who feels like an outsider, but all the more so for someone who really has been deemed outside the mainstream. And it's a message that, in his early childhood, I never thought my son would be able to absorb.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Benj was an aloof infant and toddler who hated to be held, shied away from my hugs and kisses, and showed no interest in toys. At the same time, he had a sunny temperament and would respond enthusiastically when I spoke in an animated voice or sang to him. He seemed to love the old Sesame Street videos his father and I showed him, and he would perk up whenever we played music. Still, his reticence and standoffishness baffled and worried me. Despite repeated reassurances from the pediatrician that nothing was amiss, I ultimately insisted that almost two-year-old Benj get a full developmental evaluation. The lengthy diagnosis: severe gross and fine motor delays, a speech disorder (although he had a large vocabulary, he mostly echoed, rather than creating original sentences), and a disorder of sensory integration (difficulty with crowds, loud sounds, and touch). He was hyperlexic, meaning he read early and with fluency but struggled with social interactions and conversational give-and-take. The official autism diagnosis didn't come until he was 12, but his place on the spectrum was already clear.

When I first realized the extent of Benj's challenges, among all the other worries, I was saddened that he would not be able to enjoy the things I'd loved when I was his age: stuffed animals, make-believe play—and the magical holiday shows that I'd so looked forward to sharing with my first child.

As a toddler, Benj wasn't much interested in the specials. (I still couldn't get through a Christmas season without watching them.) He couldn't follow the stories but perked up when musical numbers came on. (He loved Schroeder at the piano and Sam the banjo-playing snowman in Rudolph.)

But that soon changed. By the time Benj was nearly four, he had become enamored of the specials—one of which even occasioned a true breakthrough. That Christmas, I was disconsolate. Then, one night, while I was watching the Grinch, Benj—who couldn't sustain a conversation, who hated being touched—reached out to hold my hand at the climactic line: "Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp." This was the first time Benj had reached out to me on his own, not to mention the first time it was clear he understood what he was watching. His hand retracted almost as soon as it was offered, but the impression had been made and my eyes filled with grateful tears.

Season of Joy
A year or so later, he began to request the specials by name and to sit through them with increasingly rapt attention, frequently glancing around to make sure others, especially me, were watching, too. The first time he ever said "I am enjoying this" about anything was when watching the special Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. His happiness made the holiday season more precious to me than ever.

Now 15, Benj still greatly anticipates Christmas Special Watching Time. It is a mainstay of his year, although as such, we can't watch the shows at any other time, because, in his words, "that would be seasonally inappropriate." The routine is now deeply familiar: He never watches the specials by himself, feels best when the entire family does it together, and always wants to sit as close to me as possible.

Books, websites, and pamphlets I'd consulted in the wake of Benj's initial assessment had insisted that children with autism lack a sense of humor, empathy, aesthetic sensitivity, and spiritual awareness. But Benj's passionate engagement with these specials has shown me just how misguided these conventional beliefs are. He laughs uproariously at Heat Miser and Snow Miser's antics in The Year Without a Santa Claus. As especially moving moments draw near, Benj gives me an expectant look. When the Grinch's small heart grows three sizes that day, Benj tears up, puts his hand over his heart, and leans his head on my shoulder.

What a marvelous paradox it is: my autistic child finding transcendence in just those situations that might be expected to highlight his limits. Watching the specials has become an opportunity for Benj not only to express but also to discover, and then to practice, his capacity for deep feeling, awe, and wonder.

The True Meaning
As Benj gets older and begins to venture out on his own, I have found hope in these stories myself. I want Benj to find his Clarice, the doe who accepts and stands by Rudolph even when everyone else has rebuffed him; a loyal friend like Hermey, the misfit elf; an employer like Santa, who ultimately sees Rudolph's enormous potential. Benj, too, sees parallels between himself and these characters. Last year, as we watched Linus wrap his blanket around the forlorn and denuded little tree and proclaim, "It just needs a little love," a teary Benj wrapped his arm around me and murmured, "That little tree is like little me, and Charlie Brown and Linus are like you and Dad."

But Benj has also been the Linus for his father and me, articulating and embodying what Christmas is all about: peace, goodwill toward men. No one has helped me to overcome my own Charlie Brown–like frustration with the commercialism of the holiday more than Benj.

Every night in December, he follows up his Christmas-special watching by playing carols on the guitar. And as the year draws to an end, Benj invariably makes a wistful comment about wanting to hold on to Christmas. I, too, find myself yearning for a longer holiday season, both because he loves it so and because it's the time I feel the closest to him. In his ardent embrace of Christmas togetherness, Benj perfectly embodies Dr. Seuss's wise maxim, one that animates the best of the specials we both so love: "Christmas Day will always be, just as long as We have We."