All four of my kids have intellectual disabilities. My oldest has no interest in opening gifts. She doesn’t understand gifts, and doesn’t understand how to unwrap gifts. She was 9 when I adopted her, and she didn’t care about Santa Claus. She enjoys the gifts inside, but doesn’t care where they come from. Santa was never an issue with her.
My youngest daughter, who was 6 when I adopted her, never believed in Santa. Her first Christmas with me, I went all out for the Santa thing. I took her to see the big guy, several times — because she would not tell him or me what she wanted. Eventually, after our 3rd trip to see Santa, I told her, “Adrianne, you have to tell Santa what you want, or he can’t bring you anything.” She finally responded, “He doesn’t come.” It was clear that she had never gotten what she wanted from Santa. After much cajoling, I got her to tell me she wanted a Tickle Me Elmo. The kid got several Elmos from Santa, but it was clear she was just playing along with me. The gig was up for her.
The situation was very different for my middle daughter who was 11 for her first Christmas with me. Her peers had largely figured out the gig. Not my kid. She wholeheartedly believed. That first year I played the game, and it was kind of fun for me, since she was my first kid who really believed. However the next year her younger sister was making fun of her for believing in Santa, and all of her peers knew the truth. It was time to tell her the truth.
The middle daughter, who is now a young adult, in her heart still believes. Every year we have multiple discussions about what is real, and what is make believe. She can properly recite that Santa isn’t real. This is an important life skill. It is my job as a parent to prepare my children to be adults. They learn how to cook, do laundry, and to work, each within their own abilities. I make sure they know they know no one can live in a pineapple under the sea, that Hoth isn’t a real planet, and Smaug won’t be flying out of the next mountain we are driving over. They know people don’t jump back up after being shot, or falling over a cliff Bugs Bunny style. They know the difference between play money and real money. They are concrete learners, and need a lot of repetition to learn new things. Their peers learn from experience, deduction, or their peers. A typical kid may figure out that it is impossible for Santa to actually visit every home. My kids, however don’t learn that way. They need age, social and work appropriate behaviors modeled over and over. They need repetition of new concepts to learn.
Every year I see photos of adults with intellectual disabilities sitting with Santa Claus, often accompanied with comments about the cuteness or inspirational nature of the photo, or comments promoting pity. These photos objectify intellectually disabled adults. Outside of of a photo including a young child, Santarchy, or other tongue-in-cheek mutually consensual encounters among adults, it really is not appropriate for adults to be sitting on Santa’s lap.
I have always said my job is to get my kids grown and out of my house. My adult children live on their own with assistance. In addition to knowing independent living skills, they must also know the difference between what is real and what is make believe. This is also a form of self protection as adolescents, and adults. They won’t be targets of ridicule from their more typical peers in middle and high school. They won’t question that a law enforcement officer’s weapon is real. They won’t trade real money for fake. They are learning how to act at home, in the community, and at work so they can remain independent, and have the opportunity to work. Teaching them the difference between real and make believe is a life skill essential for their well being. Teaching them about the myth of Santa Claus is my job as a parent.