The house is aglow. I can see cousins, aunties, uncles and grandparents hugging and greeting my husband and youngest son through big bay windows. The smell of the fire beckons me inside.
Yet I can’t move. My eldest, 5-year-old Darius, is in full protest mode. His sobs have soaked my silk top and his kicks have torn a run in my stockings. He knows what’s awaiting him: Lots and lots of people.
The very thought of entering the house terrifies him. And it fills me with dread.
Back then—15 years ago—I didn’t yet have a name for what was “wrong” with Darius. But already, my maternal sense was telling me he wasn’t just a quirky kid who hated parties. As learning differences came up in school and socializing became more and more tortuous for my son, we searched for an explanation.
Eventually, we had him evaluated. That’s when we found out that Darius has a nonverbal learning disability.
With the help of therapists, tutors and special education, Darius, now 20, has learned to manage his challenges. But holiday gatherings have always been hard. And for me at least, they still are.
Our extended family gets together every year at the holidays. It’s a chance for us to catch up. But catching up with family has always led to something else for my husband and me. It puts a spotlight on how different Darius is from his cousins. Somewhere along the line, making these unspoken comparisons became part of our annual ritual.
I could say something here about how being different is actually great, and sometimes it is. But sometimes, for us and for Darius, it just isn’t.
Different is hard when everyone’s talking honor rolls and soccer trophies, and your own son is working on his fine motor skills. It’s hard when the table talk is all about which cousin is applying to what college. While in the corner of your eye, you see your child quietly slip out of the room, unsure whether he’ll be able to go to college.
As this year’s holiday gathering approaches, I’m already feeling familiar twinges. I’m anticipating conversations about college fraternities and love lives—and how it will make me worry that Darius spends too much time alone.
But then I think of Darius and how proud I am of him. He’s moved beyond feeling judged or less than. The boy who never thought he’d leave home has gone to college, made a handful of close friends and is exploring his passion for politics. I’m in awe of the strides he’s made.
He’s come into his own now that he’s spent time away. He’s busy carving out the life he wants for himself—not trying to keep pace with his cousins or with anyone’s expectations. He’s doing his own thing, he says, and comparing himself to others is just a big waste of his time and energy.
That’s a lesson he’s learned. But one I’m still trying to learn myself.
Explore strategies for how to work through your feelings about your child’s learning and thinking differences. And get tips on how to help kids with social skills issues manage the holidays.
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