Today was Thanksgiving. For many, that means family gatherings with more people than normal, more noise than normal and everything being more crowded and tense than normal. There’s lots of food and smells that are perhaps not there every day. Today, for many people, as wonderful as it can be, can also be quite stressful. This can be especially so in the autism world.
DJ has never done well in crowds or in unfamiliar, confined spaces. If you mix these elements together, he wants to exit and leave right after entering. This is one of the handful of things that he is really good at communicating, actually. He’ll lead us to the door and say “bye bye” or “all done”. Last year during Thanksgiving he did this very thing within a few minutes of being there. We were able to stall him a bit but we did end up leaving fairly quickly.
There is also the element of unpredictability in a somewhat unfamiliar environment. If left to his own devices today, DJ would have likely broken a fairly large television. At home we’ve mounted our TV on the wall out of reach of the boys. The TV today was well within his reach and he was absolutely fascinated by it. Consequently, he required constant monitoring. Either my wife or I were with him the entirety of our stay. There was no relaxing, no letting him roam and play, no fully engaged adult conversations. In situations such as today, we have to eat in shifts. One of us with the boys while the other eats and then we swap.
And what about sitting down for the traditional early afternoon Thanksgiving dinner with family and the boys? No chance. Not even close. With DJ’s eating and feeding issues, not only will he not eat turkey, potatoes, gravy, stuffing or anything else that was part of the magnificent spread today, had we brought his normal food with, because we weren’t at home, at our table, he wouldn’t have eaten anyway.
There are countless challenges, big and small, associated with holidays. There are tons of nuances that come into play with events we partake in that are out of our normal routine. Being a couple of years long veterans of living life through the lens of autism, we realize these things and put in to practice what we’ve learned to make it as smooth as we can for all of us.
Last year, Thanksgiving was pretty rough. It was very difficult for all of us.
This year was… Awesome. It was an absolutely beautiful day. Declan surprised us, big time.
This year, I am thankful for surprises.
We woke up this morning and the boys were in a good mood. They ate what amounted to a brunch, in preparation for potentially being away from home until dinner time.
We loaded up our car, departed and travelled the half hour to our destination and the car ride was smooth. There was a day when my wife and I were of a similar mindset in that when we had children, we’d maintain a certain level of “coolness”. We’d still listen to current music, we’d be able to have conversations with adults about relevant things happening today, we’d go out in public… well, I’m here to tell you that we’ve failed. We’ve failed spectacularly at being cool. Our car rides are full of Raffi and Pete The Cat these days. We talk about poop seven days per week and most days I shouldn’t be in public. For various reasons.
We arrived and we all walked in to the house and most people were already there. In total, there were just shy of twenty people in attendance today so it was certainly loud and at times a bit crowded. DJ came in with us and (when prompted) said hi to everyone and gave high fives! He was present. He was happy. Today, he was relaxed. He was at ease. We couldn’t believe it.
DJ has never been totally comfortable around dogs. At best, he’s been impartial. Typically he’s been very standoffish and retreats from them. Today, he sat next to both of the large black labs and pet them. He sat with his legs touching their legs and a hand on one of their necks. He was really in to it. This was really comforting for us to see as we are on a pretty substantial wait list for an autism assist dog. We have been slightly worried that DJ wouldn’t acclimate to having a dog around but what we saw today was quite reassuring.
One of DJ’s biggest, most consistent challenges has been eating and feeding. He only eats a few foods and will not use utensils. Today while I was eating, he sat on my lap and he actually helped me with the fork a couple times! He helped feed me a couple bites and said “mmm mmm mmm!”! If I would have tried this a year ago or even a few months ago, DJ would have gagged at the sight and smell of the food and no way would he sit on my lap while I ate.
DJ let us know that he was ready to go in his classic “bye bye” style. We packed everything up and we were actually able to go around and say good bye to every person individually. D said “bye” and gave everyone a high five. Last year, when he was ready to go, he was very ready. There was no palling around after that, no extended good byes. We packed up and hit the road. This year, he was patient and understanding. He got it.
We arrived back home and D had a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner of chicken nuggets, white cheddar cheese puffs, a pouch of yogurt and water. Coincidentally the same as his brunch earlier in the day. And the same as lunch the day before, dinner the evening prior, et cetera. And it was beautiful.
Thanksgiving this year, I believe is a glimpse in to the trajectory of our future. This isn’t to definitively say that our most difficult moments are behind us – they certainly may be – but I am confident that our best moments aren’t behind us either. With D learning and growing as he is and with SJ growing up so damn fast, I look forward to our future for many reasons.
I am thankful for the surprises that D gave us today. I am thankful for the surprises that life yields from time to time. Today, I am thankful that we didn’t come up with an excuse to stay home today and take what could have been the easier route.