By Holly Renner
For many families, a Christmas tree represents joy, holiday spirit and precious memories. For others, a tree represents unsafe curiosity, potential danger and added stress.
Killeen native Jessica Mann’s 5 year-old son, Jayian, was diagnosed with autism in Febuary 2010. For her, having a large Christmas tree in the home poses multiple problems.
“To have a Christmas tree in our home is dangerous because when he has his meltdowns, he will want to throw things at it or tear it down,” Mann said.
Children with autism tend to have a difficult time with Christmas trees because their curiosity with bright lights takes over and it can be potentially dangerous, Mann said. She expressed her desire to make Christmas an enjoyable experience for Jayian by having a smaller Christmas tree she can put somewhere out of reach.
“For him to have a Christmas tree that he can place in his room and still get stimulation from the lights – knowing what Christmas is, it would still mean a lot to me,” Mann said.
Part-time supervisor for Baylor basketball and football games and China Springs native Neil Knight has made this possible for the Mann family. He devotes countless hours to making Christmas a joyful experience for children with autism.
Knight makes smaller, intricate trees with varied decorations to give away to the Heart of Texas Autism Network in Waco to ensure children with autism will have a Christmas tree. Each tree takes Knight about eight hours to make, and Knight pays for the costs of making the trees, which is approximately $25 per tree.
Knight uses a wooden, circular base with a pole in the middle, wrapped in small lights. Fishing line filaments are strung from the top to the bottom of the base, which light up. Knight then puts custom-made decorations around the base of the tree. Each tree stands less than 2 feet, making it easily movable.
For the past 15 years, Knight has worked at Baylor basketball and football games. He said he makes the trees in his spare time.
“I enjoy doing it – it’s relaxing for me to do it,” Knight said. “So I love giving them away, and my wife says it keeps me out of trouble.”
Knight was inspired by his travels and began making the trees in 1995. He said he would see these trees in different places during his travels, and realized he could learn to make them as well. Knight initially made the trees as Christmas gifts for friends at Baylor, but when a mother and her autistic child moved in next door, Knight’s vision changed.
“We had a new neighbor and at Christmas, we gave them a tree as a welcome gift,” Knight said. “She said she had a child with autism – a large tree normally is too busy for them and they tear them down because they get too excited with the brightness.”
Knight and his wife wanted to make this Christmas tradition possible for children with autism, so they contacted Anita Karney, president at Heart of Texas Autism Network, and offered to give the Christmas trees away to families with autistic children. Since then, Knight has made – and given away – about 150 trees.
Karney sends out a newsletter informing families when trees are available.
For this holiday season, Knight has made 10 trees for the network.
“With some families, not to be able to have a Christmas tree, decorations or enjoy some of those traditional things held dear to a lot of families – for him to step up and try to help families enjoy that – that’s huge,” Karney said. “The Knights are so humble. They just bring love in a room and when they leave, the love stays.”
Knight’s most recent Christmas tree for the network has puzzle pieces as ornaments, which represent the network’s emblem.
In addition, Knight recently presented Mann with a custom-made tree for Jayian that has the “Cars” movie theme, which is one of Jayian’s favorites.
Knight said the most extraordinary tree he has made was for an Air Force pilot in World War II.
For decorations, Knight used model airplanes – modeled after the exact planes the pilot flew in Germany – as ornaments so it would give the illusion of planes flying.
Knight said the families really enjoy the trees, so he plans on continuing making them to give away as long as he can.
“He’s an example of one person associated with Baylor doing one thing – that he does well – that can change a family’s life and start a new tradition for families,” Karney said. “It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening.”