I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas – Celebrating Holidays with Isms

In 1953, a 10-year-old name Gayla Peevy, sang the song “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”, which became quite popular. I love the lines:

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas; Only a hippopotamus will do. Don’t want a doll, no dinky Tinker Toy. I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy! I want a hippopotamus for Christmas; Only a hippopotamus will do. No crocodiles, no rhinoceroses. I only like hippopotamuses, and hippopotamuses like me too!

This time of year, we listen to the radio station with non-stop Christmas holiday music, and the song always makes us laugh. Yet, it probably makes us laugh, because the song to others might be preposterous, but to a family living with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Asperger’s or any other special needs, this pretty much sounds like the intense requests we have gotten from Kevin and our friends have gotten from their children with various special needs.

“I want a real Mini Cooper car!”

We have had requests for giraffes, elephants, castles, restaurants built in the back yard, flying suits, a hot fudge hot tub and a classic Mini Cooper car, to name a few. The request is not for the toy version, stuffed or model size, but for the real thing. The trick has been to work with our son to find suitable alternatives, given his potential heartbreak for really expecting what he has requested.

So When Only a Hippo Will Do, What Are We To Do?
As the parents and loved ones dealing with the requests, simply take notice and see how to engage the child with possibilities.

  1. Their request may be based in a special interest. Given the social and communication deficits in ASD and other special needs, we need to meet the person on their ground and find ways to connect. Many of these kids can not communicate what they want. Look then to their interests, perseverations and passions for clues for meaningful gifts. As we learn to speak “their” language, we build trust and show understanding. When we can share in their excitement, they learn ways to connect outward, and we find we can relate in genuine ways. This mutual interest then becomes the greatest of gifts – the present of our Presence.
  2. Some suggestions families have used to build bridges in understanding, include taking field trips to a place which represents the child’s interest, going to the library or bookstore, using modeling clay to create scenes or objects, painting or drawing the topic together, visiting museums, creating collages from magazines or internet images, and simply just quietly observing what seems to make the child light up when they are engaged with their interest.
  3. Sometimes, the interest has deeper meaning and connection to a quality or experience of life they would like to have. For instance, one boy was into tanks and animals, liking the ones with big claws and fangs. Turns out, he felt weak and defenseless. These interests indicated he wanted to feel more powerful. His parents and teacher created opportunities for him to experience positive empowerment and his interests then shifted.

Sharing of Love
The holiday season has many messages competing for our attention, but the core one to all traditions, is the sharing of love. For our children with special needs, this season is not the time to worry about fixing their problems…it is an opportunity to show and share unconditional love.

Self Care: Holiday Stress
Given the stresses of the season, it is important we take care of ourselves. Find at least three things you would like to do this season, and request the help to make it happen – something just for you. Another aspect of self-care is to plan special needs care. Here are some examples:

  • Prepare your child for various events that will occurring, using social stories, visual schedules, and sensory tools, while being indful of stimuli and foods.
  • Ask hosts for a quiet space.
  • Gently and discretely explain your child’s specific needs to guests who might wonder. Education is always a powerful ally.
  • We often bring our own snacks, and have an exit plan, often traveling in 2 cars, when the kids were younger.
  • We use behavioral strategies and stress reducers, like breathing and yoga, to center when overload happens.

We blend the “social” scene with the auto/self needs, balancing as best as possible, trying not to place too many expectations on any of us. Overall, we choose to find our joyful, peaceful space in the midst of this hectic season, remembering that what really matters is the spirit of celebration which honors each of us uniquely.

I only like hippopotamuses, and hippopotamuses like me too! Wishing you a joyous and peaceful holiday, rich with love and wonderful presents and presence!

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Robin Schwoyer About Robin Schwoyer

HeARTs for Autism




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  • Joanna Keating-Velasco

    Great article. Our staff always is challenged each year at this time, because we need to make a Christmas wish list for each of our students. We are blessed to have our local Rotarians sponsor each child with a toy that Santa brings during a holiday luncheon. Our students range from 3 to 22 with severe challenges including behavioral and medical fragility. Most are non-verbal so helping them pick “the perfect gift” ideas for them is an interesting challenge. We bring in lots of holiday toy catalogs, etc and we pull up lots of different stuff on our big screen Smart Boards to see if anything catches their interest or eyes. Sometimes we have an idea of what to suggest, but when we show them, they steer off into a better direction. Definitely taking the time and moments to listen (even for the non-verbal cues) and watch their body language helps us suggest good gift ideas for each student.

  • Robin Schwoyer

    Thank you for your comments Joanna! How wonderful you have sponsors for the children to help spread some holiday cheer. We had one child who only liked kitchen utensils. The gift buyer felt odd buying a plastic spatula, yet you should have seen that child’s face light up. The spatula was later transformed by volunteers into an interactive piece by taping pictures and letters onto it. The spatula even served time as a stick puppet. Ultimately, regardless of the object chosen and given, the greatest gift will be the connection, the presence, of You to that special young person. Joyful holidays to you, the children and your staff!

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