Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"Ages 3 and Up" — Or Way Too Many Toys

Sweet M's letter to Santa, October 28, 2008

In late October, after the Toys R Us catalog arrived with the Sunday newspaper, Sweet M sat down to write her list for Santa. She was trying to avoid thinking about Halloween, a holiday she loathes, by looking forward to Christmas. And unlike any of the other 11-year-olds at her school, she still believes in Santa.

Her Christmas list was long — very, very long — and both bridged gender roles and spanned the ages — the developmental ages, that is. She was as ecstatic thinking over the possibilities of a Dora designer dollhouse as she was about a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon DS game. She was as enthusiastic over the Leapfrog tag reading system as she was over the Hannah Montana videogame. When toy makers put "ages 3 and up" on the label, they must have been thinking of Sweet M. The "and up" applies in almost every selection. My friend Mom-NOS observed a similar developmental spread in her boy Bud's toy selections.

I was the scribe for Sweet M's letter to Santa. That is, I typed the letter as she excitedly listed the items. As her spirits soared with the possibilities of all the fun she could have, my spirits sank thinking about both the practical and theoretical implications of her list.

Practically speaking there is the problem of a list of so many items that I'd need to rob a bank to pay for the stuff. Well, scratch "rob a bank" and replace with "rob the Federal Reserve" since the banks don't have any money anymore.

And then there is the problem of where to put whatever stuff we might get. Our apartment is small — as are so many New York City apartments — and given her very expansive developmental span, we never quite know when she's done with something. Legos to the Goodwill, or keep 'em another year? Talking Amanda to the Salvation Army, or hold on for another round? Barbies to the niece in California, or keep those Barbie travel trains and remote control convertible cars ready at hand? Right now our apartment has taken on the look of a Manhattan Mini-Storage for a daycare center: we have enormous bags of stuffed animals, bins of Barbies, Legos, and art supplies, and shelves of games and sporting equipment.

And then there was the more serious problem: how to teach her about other values? Last year I took her to Operation Santa at the 34th Street post office and we chose two letters. One was from a teenage boy asking for a Strawberry Shortcake doll for his little sister and the other was from a new mother asking for infant clothes for a newborn. Sweet M didn't quite understand what these letters were, or why we were shopping for stuff for other people — people that we didn't know. I explained that Santa needs helpers because there are lots of kids in the world and only one Santa, but that didn't sink in for quite some time. For Sweet M, who does genuinely have a sweetness and kindness of spirit, imagining the needs of others is still what her teachers would call "emerging."

When we finished her 2008 letter to Santa, Sweet M eagerly addressed the envelope — to "Santa, North Pole" — and I dropped in the mail that evening. I know it will wind up at the post office on 34th Street, and imagine that some adult like me will read it, and likely think: "Wow, what a materialistic spoiled brat" rather than, "Oh, a child on the spectrum with an emerging sense of empathy and compassion and a passion for the concrete world of things."

What Sweet M has taught me today is that at autism's edges empathy is a road that has to be paved in two directions. We'll head back to Operation Santa next week — they open on December 2nd! — and we'll hope to see you there.

Sweet M's drawing for Santa.

Technorati Tags:


kristina said...

High time that the elves and good old Santa had some neurodiversity training......

m said...

the range of desired objects really is amazing.

high school musical 3 games...night vision goggles (and a few other spy related things...hee, she's developing a covert super-spy side to her personality).

you can just feel that expansive intelligence at work..."I am a Sweet M with many tastes". Quite nice.

Although it will be tough to find Christmas ornaments as large as she is wanting, if that drawing is an indication of her decorating preference. You may have to improvise.

MothersVox said...

Kristina -- Yes, neurodiversity for the elves! M, thanks so much for coming by! I was so happy that Kyra posted about your blog and I started reading our great commentary. Absolutely great. What you said about empathy v love -- that was awesome!

Anonymous said...

Dear MothersVox,
I was reading your blog about the letter to Santa. Very funny, especially the part about robbing the federal reserve instead of the banks. (although you better hurry before the auto bailout takes the rest!)
I wanted to reach out to you since you are looking for gifts for Christmas. My name is Tom Stein and I am the COO of Goosie Cards. Goosie Cards are the first and only custom flash cards. You get to upload your own photos, add your text and create flash cards with real life photos of your world. We are sold education stores, Learning Express and even at FAO Schwarz right here in NYC. We pride ourselves on the durability of our product which is why so many parents of special needs children use them. Children can bend them, chew them and you can clean them with Clorox. We have had such an overwhelming response from the community that we created a curriculum for the schools and offer discount program for families and teachers. I would love to send you a set of the custom cards to test out if you would like to try them.
You can reach me at
Best Regards,