Why We Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ With My Autistic Son Every Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and with it comes the yearly conundrum faced by this autism family and our extended family.

Whom should we sing “Happy Birthday” to on Thanksgiving Day? The turkey? The pilgrims and Native Americans? We’ve regaled them all over the years.

I think a little explanation is in order.

boy in blue shirt holding lollipop

My autistic son, now 13, loves to sing “Happy Birthday” at every family gathering. In his worldview, it’s not a party until we sing “Happy Birthday.” And our big extended family always sings along.

Sometimes the holiday/Happy Birthday mash-up is effortless. On Easter, we sing “Happy Birthday” to the Easter Bunny. On the Fourth of July, we sing to Uncle Sam or America. In a few weeks, our Christmas carol will be “Happy Birthday Jesus.”

But Thanksgiving is always a bit of a stumper. (Let’s face it, “Happy Birthday Turkey” is just wrong on too many levels.)

Really, though, the conundrum is not a big deal. The way our family welcomes our son’s contribution to family gatherings is.

They all appreciate the dazzling joy on his face when we sing his favorite song. They understand he needs to spend much of the gathering outside with his dog or in a quiet room with my husband or me until his big moment. It’s really no big deal to them.

It is a big deal to my husband and me because they’ve always embraced him for who he is, just as they’ve embraced every family member, whatever quirks or other qualities they bring to the table. We are thankful for their acceptance and unconditional love because we know not everyone experiences it at their holiday table.

So, when we gather for Thanksgiving, I’ll bring the potatoes. Nan will make her oyster stuffing. Another family member will bring salads and salmon Nanbanzuke-style (nanbanzuke is a Japanese fish dish).

Our son will bring the joy of song. And I will have much to be thankful for.

boy laying next to his dog

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or illness during the holiday season, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To the Loved Ones Who Don’t Get Why We Leave Holiday Dinners Early

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Right around this time of the year, I start to get a warm feeling coursing through my blood. I love everything about the holidays — the sights, the smells and most definitely the foods. Most importantly I love watching the utter joy light up my son Brock’s face. There’s not much that can really put that look on his face, but the holiday season sure does.

My holiday season looks much different then what I imagined when Brock was born. I imagined we’d spend days traveling back and forth between families and gorging ourselves on endless amounts of food. I imagined we’d spend hours upon hours relaxing in the comfort of relatives’ homes, sharing and reminiscing about years past.

That didn’t happen, though. My son has autism and sensory processing disorder, and my idea of what makes holidays wonderful has since changed significantly. The hardest part wasn’t putting my holiday dreams to the wayside, but having to defend myself at every turn to family members and friends who just don’t understand the importance of limiting time for Brock or not being able to attend things at all.

This is what I want each of you to know.

I dread hearing my phone ring around this time of year, but what I dread even more is having to defend my parenting decisions so often. Contrary to popular belief, I love visiting each and every one of you. I don’t like having to tell you that once again we won’t be able to attend your event. Brock’s father and I came to the decision a few years back that we would each pick one Thanksgiving dinner and one Christmas party from each side of our family to attend with Brock during the holidays. Each year we switch it up so we can catch up with other members of our families as well.

The reason we do this is because, whether or not you see it, the holidays are overwhelming for Brock. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes planning that goes on. We have to prepare Brock for weeks, sometimes even up to a month for all of the events that are going on.

Brock’s schedule is fairly strict — not because we like limiting his activities, but because that is how he thrives. His mind can’t process or handle that much sensory overload. We would love nothing more than to give exceptions for holiday events, but the times we have been more lax have affected him for up to days afterwards. After raising Brock for seven years, I know the exact hour, minute and seconds he can handle attending such things. It may seem odd or extreme to you, but I promise you a lot of work has gone into creating a schedule and forming plans that benefit Brock’s well being.

When you make comments about us cutting out early, it affects us more than I’d like to admit. Having to defend ourselves constantly is off-putting; it makes it really hard for us to want to continue attending these things. In my perfect world, my child wouldn’t have to fight and push himself each day to leave the house. Things like schedules for a 7-year-old wouldn’t exist. We’d be able to live on the wild side and spend our holidays in the car, with stomachs so full of food we can’t move. But they do exist. Autism and sensory processing disorder are a part of Brock, and our main concern will always be him. 

Instead of worrying about those “cutting out short” comments, let’s enjoy the time we do have. And if we can’t make it, please remember we truly wanted to be there, but there’s a good reason if we have to cancel.

Brock with his arm around his sister

The Mighty is asking the following: Write a letter to anyone you wish had a better understanding of your experience with disability, disease or illness during the holiday season. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Every Neurotypical Person Needs to Hear This Autistic Artist's Poem

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A Montreal-based artist who specializes in photorealistic pencil drawings has lately been using short videos as a form of self-expression. The artist, who goes by “Remrov,” has autism, and on Nov. 17 she uploaded a video of herself reading a poem that explains her experience on the spectrum — and what the rest of the world can do to help people with autism.

The piece, called “Neuro-untypical,” starts off as a crash course of sorts. “I wrote a poem about the most important things people should know about people with autism,” Remrov wrote with the clip.

She then explains that many individuals with autism are sensitive to noise and that interactions may be challenging. “The world in small details, that’s how we see,” she says. “The big picture is hard, I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s true that we often look away, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t care what you say.”

“[I’m] at a point in my life where I want to pass on everything I have learned and everything that helped me to other people with autism and their families and also educators and everyone else interested in the topic,” Remrov wrote on her Facebook page. “I want to create a bridge between the autistic and neurotypical worlds, and I hope to be a voice to non-verbal people with autism.”

I just published a new video in which I explain how my autism effects my artwork. I also share more about the progress…

Posted by Remrov’s World of Autism on Thursday, November 5, 2015

 

For more of Remrov’s videos and art, be sure to visit her Facebook and YouTube pages, along with her website

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article used the artist’s full name. The artist has asked to go by “Remrov.”

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When My Son With Autism Asked Why a Boy Scouts Troop Excluded Him

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We choose my son. All of him. Where he’s been. Where he’s going. 

It never occurred to me that someone not choosing my son would hurt longer and more deeply than any rejection I have experienced as an individual.

The Boy Scouts motto is, “Be Prepared.” And I wasn’t. Not prepared to receive a voicemail telling me that our son’s troop unfortunately didn’t have the resources to welcome a child like ours, because it wasn’t fair to the other boys. What did he mean? Over 14 months, our son had already skied with this troop, shot rockets with this troop, biked 50 miles in one day with this troop, camped with this troop. But the voicemail on that Tuesday in November said our son wasn’t a good fit.  

We had communicated with the troop from the beginning about our son’s strengths and weaknesses, including his diagnosis of autism. We knew how it challenged his ability to tie knots, pitch a tent, start a fire. We wanted him to grow from where he was to where he wanted to be. What we came to understand, however, was that his kind of autism, with its slow response time, was a challenge for the adults, too, and one they chose not to accept. Perhaps his slower, different way of communicating scared them, annoyed them, embarrassed them, confused them, frustrated them. They finally chose to exclude him, something I didn’t know a scout troop could do. 

“Why don’t they want me, Mom? I already hiked 10 miles in preparation for the hike and no one else had to do that to prove they were ready. I proved it — why are they excluding me? It’s Tuesday and we’re supposed to go on Friday, and I said I would go. Papa is going with me. What did I do wrong? Why won’t they let me go?” These were the questions that came flooding out of a young man who had struggled all his life to answer others’ questions.

This time I was the one who had no answers. I had to confess that I didn’t understand, that his dad and I didn’t believe it was fair and that above all we were so sorry that this happened. No amount of discussion with the troop in the days that followed helped. We had trusted that these scout adults would be kind, friendly, helpful, loyal, trustworthy — just as the scout oath promises; I believe they chose to reject these principals when dealing with our son. Some times people make choices that hurt us. They reject us. 

And so we looked for a troop that wanted our son. We called and asked to set up a meet-and-greet to see if the new troop would be a good fit. And they refused. 

With kindness and friendliness, the scoutmaster explained that his troop didn’t need to meet our child to determine if he was a good fit for them.

They would welcome him unconditionally.

They said they would take him where he was and travel the path of scouts with him as far as he wanted to go, Eagle if that was what he wanted (and he wanted it). They promised to be helpful, loyal and trustworthy. They chose him.

So we learned that life is in the choosing, and that choosing must go both directions.  

As a mother, you can choose to freeze at the moment of your child’s rejection. Or you can choose to go with him through that sad, surprising, disappointing betrayal of hope and trust. When you choose to go through it, there will come a day when it’s where you’ve been, and part of you. But it is not you. Because you have chosen to move on. 

And this summer, four years and five Boy Scout rank advancements later, our son carried out his Eagle project of building benches for the car riders at his K-8 public school. I didn’t want him to do this project because it seemed too big. He had moved on to high school and was really busy working his first job. I tried to talk him into a smaller scale project. But true to form, he persevered.

He reached out to people he has known from every corner of his life. He invited his village:  family, friends, therapists, teachers, caregivers, fellow scouts, church members, karate ka members and neighbors. His hairdresser came. Our church custodian came — more than once.   

As our son welcomed his village to participate in his project, and they chose to help, I have felt my hope and trust in the kindness of people return.

We watched him build much more than benches. We watched him develop self-confidence and earn the respect of so many people. He built community.

This week, our son passed his Eagle Board of Review. He shares that accomplishment with all of us who chose to share our resources and journey with him.

Do you have a story about your experience with disability or disease? Maybe a moment that made a big impact on you? Please send it to [email protected] and include a photo for the story, a photo of yourself and a 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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How an Autism Family Prepares for Thanksgiving

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Oh, the hours of prep work that goes into preparing for a Thanksgiving family feast…

Peeling, cutting, basting, dicing, slicing, baking, mashing, boiling and stuffing.

Not to mention the three-page grocery list, aisle change maneuvering. shopping cart dodging and baking aisle crowd surfing just to get the ingredients you need before even opening your recipe book.

No wonder you’re exhausted before you’ve even turned the oven on.

Now take that prep work and multiply it by (a minimum) of 30 days, 370 hours and 2,592,000 seconds, and you’ve got the amount of time it takes  for an autism family to brace for the Thanksgiving holiday!

An autism family doesn’t just “prepare” for Thanksgiving; we study it, rehearse it, plan it and dissect its every last detail until we’ve exhausted every possible option for potential meltdown or sensory overload.

We plot out our exact location within the house. Bay windows: too bright. Carpet: too scratchy. Kitchen: too smelly. Open doorway: too loud.

Then we stake it out. We arrive extra early to set up camp. Electrical outlet for electronics, check. Curtains or dimmer switches for calming, check. Sound proofing (with headphones on), check.

Next we surveillance it for potential “intruder invasion.” Do the doors and windows lock? Can my child reach the locking mechanism? If he happens to build a grand staircase out of Legos or popsicle sticks, can he somehow get outside? Are there extra light switches, fan cords, hinges or fancy sound systems that could catch his attention? And finally, “Can I afford to replace anything in this room should it end up broken or damaged beyond repair?”

Autism families don’t get up at 4 a.m. to baste the turkey on Thanksgiving morning because chances are we’ve been basting and slow cooking our own “little turkey” since the day after Halloween. Not to mention 4 a.m. would be like sleeping in!

Autism families prepare for the upcoming holiday far beyond just making lists, shopping, cooking and baking. We’ve inserted our turkey timer before the calendar has hit November. We only pray it doesn’t pop before we’ve had the chance to arrive.

So if you invite us over to your house to celebrate, please don’t be offended if we stay in a separate room, our children won’t socialize or we have to leave 20 minutes after arriving. Because just like you we worked hard to try and make the day special. We planned and prepared as much as we possibly could. And we appreciate the invitation more than you know.

Remember the holidays can be hard for our children. Routines are changed, crowds gather and different smells, lights and noises fill the air. But we’re trying. And even if the turkey is dry, the mashed potatoes are lumpy and the dinner rolls are slightly “over browned,” we wont hold it against you because we’re eternally thankful you chose to include us in your holiday celebration.

Autism families don’t just celebrate Thanksgiving one day a year; we give thanks for every minute that lasts a little bit longer.

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To the Mama Who Feels Like She’s Not Enough for Her Autistic Son

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Dear Mama,

I know things might look a little bleak right now, but I want you to know there’s hope. There’s always hope.

I want you to know this because I was once in your shoes, feeling hopeless.

I worried I was failing as a parent.

That I didn’t have what it took to successfully advocate for my son.

That somehow my lack of knowledge and experience would prevent him from living to the potential I knew was buried somewhere in that frantic little body.

That the dire predictions of the educational “experts” who were specialists in their fields would prove to be correct. That I was not strong enough. That I was not patient enough. That I was not enough.

I couldn’t see past the endless days filled with exhaustion, misunderstanding, rejection and marginalization. It consumed me. I began to think I might be the problem since I couldn’t do or be enough for my boy.

But then, sweet mama, someone gave me hope.

Just at a time when I felt that I had nothing left, an incredible older lady at our church, with a grown autistic son of her own, told me I was enough. That my precious boy had been given to the perfect mama for him – one who would love him no matter what, fight for him no matter what and accept him no matter what. She reminded me the most beautiful of butterflies come from awkward-looking caterpillars and that even those caterpillars appear to not be growing or changing when they’re cocooned in their chrysalis. But that period of stasis, that is when the magnificent transformation takes place.

Sweet mama, you’re that guardian of the chrysalis. You’re the one who has cared for your child, nurturing him because the very things which make him awkward somehow make you love him even more. You’ve allowed your child to feel safe enough to create that chrysalis. You’ve tirelessly and relentlessly stood watch over it, protecting your child so he will remain safe enough to transform into the magnificent creature you could see when no one else could.

So, sweet mama, today I want to gift you with hope, just like I was given years ago. There’s always hope. You are enough. Your child is with the perfect mama who will love, cherish and nurture him. These hard days will end. I promise.

There used to be days-on-end where I would sleep, curled up on the floor outside of my son’s bedroom so I’d wake up if he tried to escape from his room – and our home. Endless days filled with public meltdowns, terrifying moments when he ran off despite my death-grip clutch on his little wrist, and countless incidents where I somehow was able to snatch him from physical danger at the last possible second. Years in which other parents avoided me so they would not have to expose their children to my son’s “antics,” in which family members avoided spending time with my son, instead only including his “normal” sister in vacations and outings, in which schools and sports teams would not allow him to participate, stating he was “too much work,” and in which other children ignored the little boy who so desperately wanted to have at least one friend.

But you know what, sweet mama? Although there are still many hard days, things are better. So much better. My son just completed his first quarter of high school – not in a contained classroom but in a regular classroom – with an 88 average, despite the fact that I’d been told he wouldn’t be able to pass remedial classes. He worked for several months to get into shape so he could try out for the high school wrestling team. He made the JV team, despite never being allowed to participate in group sports before. His first match is next weekend, and his mama will be his loudest cheerleader. He’s working on his Eagle Scout project, putting a backstop in our small town’s baseball field so other kids will be able to play baseball even if they aren’t allowed to be part of a team. He’s sought out by young children who love to play with the 6-foot-5 “giant,” knowing he will not only be patient and kind, but that he will also make sure they’re kept safe.

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My previously awkward caterpillar has emerged from his chrysalis and is now starting to unfurl his magnificent wings. I can only imagine how incredible they will truly be when fully extended and he’s able to finally fly.

So, sweet mama, please know there’s hope. There’s always hope.

For you, for your precious child and for the rest of the world to notice and marvel at our incredible butterflies. We’re blessed to have been given the priceless gift of nurturing these souls, so for today, tomorrow and the next day after that, please know you aren’t alone, you are enough and you can do this.

For yourself. For your child. For the world.

Love,

A Hopeful Mama

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