Essays

A collection writings and thoughts by artist Gary Llama.

Advent Calendars / Autism

Some thoughts on the Toy Advent Calendar and autism…

…One of the issues we struggle with the most, is Madison’s fixation on events. If she learns of an event, she will count down the days to it. This can be problematic if it’s too long for her to comprehend the amount of time between now and then. Regardless, she will still try to count it down.

So advent calendars are great for her. One of the best things to use in explaining more complex things to kids with Autism, is ‘story maps’, essentially, pictures of steps involved in something. However, as counting down days to events, the focus, is on the number of days, so just representing each day, works. And it works great.

For the past couple years, since she has become aware of christmas and attempted to count down to it, I have been getting advent calendars with chocolate. She really, really liked this. It gave her a feeling of accomplishment, meeting the day, and from there, she could relax in knowing that tomorrow was another day in the calendar, and see how it would proceed till christmas.

When we would try to explain the amount of days verbally, it would never really work with her, and actually seemed to increase her anxiety. So not only is the advent calendar calming, but it seems to make her feel empowered and less worried.

So when I discovered there was one with toys, i had mixed feelings…

Number One: She has WAY too many toys already.
Number Two: She does NOT appreciate the toys sometimes, but rather focuses just on the aquisition.
Number Three: Introducing or addressing the idea of getting toys, or just talking about them in general, can make her very anxious, from counting down days till she can get them, to trying to figure out which ones she wants, to worrying if she will get one at all. And if she becomes focused too hard on one of these points, it can be a very negative event for her.

But, as she was already counting down till christmas, and most of the focus was toys already, the idea that a calendar could give her a small toy, was intriguing. Would it alleviate anxiety? Would she appreciate them? Would it increase appreciation by tying the aquisition to a solid event (like a day, rather than a random trip to target?) and ultimately, how would she react when the calendar ended. Is it training her to expect a new toy each day?

I wasn’t really sure.

My approach to her, and Toys is this: Childhood is a time of learning and wonder. Toys can stoke wonder, and help learn. Even the most marketed of toys, like paw patrol, as crass as they may seem to an old punk like me, well, I see her acting things out with them. Narrating life. And that is wonderful. It re-taught to me the other big thing, perhaps the most important thing, that occurs with toys: We act out things. And these things could be social interaction, either realistic or fantastic, aspirations, fears, the whole gamut. So I am definetely PRO toy…

However, as something of a minimalist, I have a huge aversion to her having too many of them. How many is too many? I have no idea. My initial approach was, periodically ask her to pick out the toys she no longer uses, and donate them. Well, that works for some things, but for a LOT of things, they are actually used, but with periods, long periods of neglect behind them. Months will go by, and then she pulls them out, and plays with them for a month. Perhaps its because of the fixations and fascinations of autism. Or perhaps because she remembered them. Or perhaps someone reminded her of them. I have no idea. But at some point, we will need to reel that in further, because the amount of toys she has, is in my mind, way way too many.

And as messy as they might be in storing them. My actual problem is larger with aquiring them. I’m totally fine looking at toys EVERY TIME we go to target, despite how un-fun that may be for me. But when she’s throwing fits because she can’t get one NOW, well, it’s unsettling. She needs to learn to wait. She needs to learn to appreciate both the toys and the process of buying them.

Back to the advent calendar.

How did she react to it?

1. It calmed her anxiety about christmas.
When I say anxiety, it can be positive or negative. In fact, she can get negatively worked up about a positive experience, simply because she can’t understand when, exactly, it is.

The advent calendar eliminated this by about 98%. Very stoked on that.

2. It supplanted her desire to get toys, somewhat.
I’d say it reduced her focus on attaining toys by about 60%. Which seems good, until you realize she was getting a toy from this thing each day, so thats not really 60%…. not even sure how to calculate that.

3. It gave her 24 toys.
This I could do without. I could really use 24 less toys in the house.

So whats better, Toys or Chocolate?
In the former, we are giving the kid a toy each day, in the latter, chocolate. Both are stimulating the dopamine reward system, and tying it to a day, rather than a specific situation, like an accomplishment. This could create an expectance or entitlement, or perhaps, as it occurs under the auspice of ‘Christmas’ she is aware enough to know that this isn’t just everyday, but rather A PART of the celebration of christmas. If that is the case, it’s basically a new tradition for her, and one I see no problem with.

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Llamatism is a collection of things, a cabinet of curiosities, and reports from explorations on things, by Gary Llama.

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