I watch my son’s eyes constantly. He may be mostly nonverbal, but his eyes speak loudly. Even when he cannot bring himself to look at me, I watch his eyes and often times, they tell me what I need to know.
I watch them dart from one thing to the next in rapid motion: this usually tells me that he is overstimulated. I watch his eyes cut mischievously at me to sneak a quick glance before he does something he knows he is not supposed to do: this reminds me that despite Autism, he is “all boy” and is testing his boundaries. I am crushed as I see the frustration in his eyes: he wants to be understood. I watch his eyes light up in wonder or excitement when he sees something he desires: he notices his environment. I see the sparkle in his eyes when he is able to stare back into mine: I can see his love for me and my heart melts.
Certainly there is impulsivity and many unknown factors on this Autism journey. There are days when I stare into my son’s eyes and all I can find is a lost little boy, trapped in his own reality. But more often than not, I can find him. So I watch. I watch ever so closely. I anticipate. I wonder. I take him in.
Because I naturally watch my son’s eyes, it’s no wonder that I was watching them closely as we entered my parent's house for Thanksgiving dinner. I often take for granted the fact that not everyone understands what all the holiday season entails for a family with a child who has special needs, so let me give you a quick rundown of all the thoughts that were going through our heads as we joined our family for a Thanksgiving feast.
How long do you think we will be able to stay? He is already a little overstimulated today. Oh goodness, there are pretty decorations everywhere. We are going to break something. Or even more, we are going to throw something and then break it! I hope they don’t mind him singing at the top of his lungs- he loves “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” right now. This may be too many people. We may have a meltdown. Will the other kids or adults acknowledge him? Hopefully he will keep his shirt on the whole time. Do you think everyone will mind if we watch “Signing Time” or “The Little Engine that Could” for about fifty times in a row? Maybe this was a bad idea. Stop thinking negatively…Maybe this will be a great Thanksgiving experience! Oh gosh, he just threw his cup into the already decorated Christmas tree…awesome.
It’s true. No matter how cool, calm, and collected I try to act, there are a flood of thoughts filling my mind during large family get- togethers. Thanksgiving was no exception.
So, as my anxious thoughts rose and we walked in the door to this Thanksgiving feast, I watched my little boy’s eyes for a cue.
I watched him as he did his little step, hop around the large living room and on into the dining area. We have a very large family so there were three beautiful tables set to welcome their guests. Ezra noticed these tables and stared. I watched as his eyes inspected every inch of these tables with their beautiful plates and crystal glasses. He nodded his head at each place setting as though he was mentally counting the places in anticipation for all the guests to arrive and be seated. I took him in as he took in the unfamiliar tables.
Ezra finally moved on from inspecting these tables and began playing with his toys on the floor nearby as we waited for other family members to arrive. I noticed that periodically, he would glance up from his toys to see if the tables were still there.
As each family arrived bearing trays of food and hugs for all, my boy was not left out. Our family has embraced Ezra in such a loving way. My momma’s heart swelled as each niece and nephew greeted Ezra with a “Hey Ezra!” or a sweet pat on the back. Although my son hardly glanced up from his busyness with his toy trains, he knew his cousins were there and he knew that they had included him in their greetings.
As our families sat down to eat, I asked where Ezra should sit. Without hesitation the answer was “Right here!” as I looked at a place setting with a glass plate and crystal cup; just like everyone else’s.
It was as if Ezra knew exactly where to go. He walked to the table and once again nodded his head as though he was mentally counting each place setting. When his nodding made its way around the table, he stopped at his own chair and a smile spread across his face. He knew. There was a place at the table for him.
He was not asked to sit at a table off to the side. He was not left to roam around the room and graze from a plate. He was not given a “special” plate in the event that he might break one of the nice ones. There was a place at the table for him, and he knew it.
Was I nervous about the beautifully decorated table? You betcha. Did I have visions of him possibly pulling the table cloth with all of its adornments into a messy heap on the floor? Yep. Was it a possibility that he might break something? Yes. But my parents knew this. It was more important to them that Ezra have a place at their table than for him to be excluded or pushed to the side.
And Ezra knew it. I could see it in his eyes.
We didn’t have some magic dining experience. We still had to help Ezra feed himself. We still had to remind him to “Sit down, Ezra.” We still had to use his i-pad to help calm him while he was in an unusual setting. But our Thanksgiving meal was complete because there was a place at the table for Ezra.
I keep thinking about my little boy as he nodded his head at each place setting when we had first arrived that Thanksgiving day. I just can’t help but imagine that he was mentally counting the chairs and wondering Is there a place for me at the table?
I have heard too many stories of children with special needs being unwelcomed by friends and even family members. I know that many times precious souls just like my Ezra are brushed to the side. They are excluded.
You know, it was a possibility that Ezra may not have even been able to sit with our family at the table this Thanksgiving. Some days are just not good days. Some days leave him sprawled out on the floor in a sad or even aggressive mess. But even if he had been too overwhelmed to join us at the table, he would have had a place there, saved for him, just in case. He would have known that there was a place for him at the table.
Could it be that a true reflection of your heart might be revealed by whom you would welcome to your table?
As the Christmas season approaches, I encourage you to make room at your table for everyone. Just because a person can’t speak doesn’t mean that they desire no communication. Just because a person cannot make eye contact doesn’t mean that they wish to not be acknowledged. Just because a person seems to be in a world of their own doesn’t mean that they are unaware of their surroundings and the things being said and done around them. Just because a person may not comment on your beautifully decorated dinner table does not mean that they do not greatly value being welcomed at it.
As the Christmas season approaches, I encourage you to create an atmosphere of hospitality for everyone. This sounds easy until you take into account that “everyone” may mean that you need to be ok with singing at the table, the possibility of a broken plate, a wheelchair in the place of one of your wooden ones, a feeding tube, an oxygen tank, or an i-pad on the table. We should search the crevasses of our hearts to see who truly has a place at our table.
It seems to me that the people you welcome to your table are also the people you welcome into your heart.
Won’t you welcome sweet children like mine to your table? Won’t you welcome those who are often cast aside? Won’t you welcome those who are least likely to be welcome at someone else’s table?
They are waiting. They are waiting for you to welcome them. I know. I can see it in Ezra’s eyes.
"Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angles without knowing it." Hebrews 13:2