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It's the simple things that matter to him


If you look at the picture, you can see that Nolan is holding a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, a unicorn affixed to a trash can with a lid that raises and lowers, from the movie, “Onward.”


I have no idea if the unicorn has a name, what his role is in the movie, or why he has an affinity for a trash can. To be honest, I’ve only seen a couple of the Disney Pixar films, so they all kind of run together to me. I think there’s one where Woody and Buzz Lightyear rescue Elsa from a creature named Stitch and drive to safety in a car named Lightning McQueen, but don’t quote me on that.


All I know is Nolan is really fond of this toy. He carries it around the house. It’s with him at the kitchen table while he’s eating. He recently discovered that the lid raises when he blows on the garbage can, kind of like a noisemaker you get at a New Year’s Eve shindig or a kid’s birthday party. I tried it myself when I had a moment of down time Sunday, and I have to admit it is kind of amusing. But then again, I’m easily amused. Like father, like son, I guess.


Nolan has two boxes of fidgets on his bedroom dresser, and there is a wide array of toys that keep him content. Marvel Comics characters. Minions that jabber, and sometimes if you’re lucky, make farting noises when you press a button on their stomach. A one-armed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle that is a candidate for the Island of Misfit Toys. A chewed-on, beaten-up Halloween Pez dispenser that I think once was a ghost or a mummy that’s a candidate for the trash, but I can’t bring myself to chuck it just yet because Nolan likes it so much.


Tuesday is Nolan 15th birthday, and we’re just 18 days away from Christmas. By this time every year, Cindy and I have kicked around about 100 gift ideas and rejected about 97 of them. New clothes will always be a need for a perpetually hungry, “I swear he grew another half-inch overnight!” teenager. But really, where’s the excitement in getting another couple pair of sweatpants and a few t-shirts from 6dollarshits.com that will make Nolan’s teachers and paraprofessionals chuckle?


Nolan has Autism and is nonverbal, and there still are days that I would surrender my most prized collectibles and one of my limbs if it meant he would experience the joy, and reap the rewards, that many of his neurotypical peers do on birthdays and at Christmas. But then I step back and see what is important in his world:


A yoga ball that gets a lot of use and, unlike the other ones that came before it, miraculously has not yet popped.


An older iPad with a caved-in screen that gives him access to his favorite videos on YouTube Kids.


A Casio keyboard one of my buddies gave him this past summer after he’d broken several keys on the $200 Yamaha model Cindy and I bought him two years ago.


Cheap plastic toys that might get tossed, left in strange places – I just found a Minion by the bathroom sink – and occasionally stepped on, but they are loved.


Mom, Dad – put away the Visa. I’m good here.


I really wish we could reward Nolan for the fantastic job he’s done so far during his freshman year of high school. Last year we spent the weekend before he turned 14 at a hotel in west-central Wisconsin with an indoor trampoline park. He had a blast jumping almost nonstop for two hours, but I think he was just as happy about the giant ball Cindy won for him after spending all of three dollars playing one of those giant claw games.


Unfortunately, right now we have a very tight budget and a case of corona paranoia after someone in the special education classroom tested positive for COVID-19 last month and kept Nolan homebound for two weeks because he’d been in close contact with the person, so there will be no special birthday road trip this year. But he’s glad to get any kind of movement, especially if it involves car rides. We took the long way home from school last Friday, and Cindy took him on five rides this past weekend. Gas is still relatively inexpensive, at least for now, so it’s a small price to pay if it prevents a meltdown.


Christmas is a time when even those of us who haven’t believed in Kris Kringle for decades should get pumped about what we find under the tree (I still love the Roku stick I got in 2018). Last year I wrote about how it hurt me that I’d never really seen Nolan react to any of his Christmas gifts the way I had reacted to mine as a kid. Two of his teachers gave us some good ideas for possible gifts, and he probably will be getting both of them. Still, I’m expecting him to hand back any presents he receives either with indifference or an irritated yell and retreat to his room. It’s almost worth going to Dollar Tree and buying him a few strings of Mardi Gras beads, which he loves, even though I know I’ll be finding vacuuming up beads well past Easter.


(Note to self: Gift idea No. 101 is a sure-fire winner).


Cindy noted that what we consider big events don’t have the same meaning to Nolan, and she’s right. Both of us have happy memories of awesome birthday gifts and Christmas presents that made our hearts beat a little faster when we ripped the wrapping paper off them. Nolan just wants the things that are familiar and bring him comfort. A pile of soft blankets. Watching a song about a letter of the alphabet for the 500th time. A toy from The Golden Arches.


Maybe there still are times I wish Nolan could experience the type of birthday or Christmas that many of his peers do. Then I remind myself that the simple things are what bring him joy, and that’s all that really matters.

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