What I am about to share may come as a shock to many and perhaps it will resonate with others. In any event, this is our home, our story and this is how autism affects my son and in essence, how it affects us as a family.
My son doesn’t eat with us at the table -not breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is his choice, one that I had a difficult time coming to terms with for many years. There are the occasional family events where he’ll happily join us for dinner or dessert, all depending on the noise level and how well he can process everything without getting overwhelmed.
To understand why he chooses to eat alone, accompanied with his music or computer, we have to go back to when he was a child.
My son was always one that needed his routine followed to a T. This was more evident when he was a toddler when transitions and change, even in the slightest form, sent him into a huge meltdown. And as a toddler, we faced many daily challenges; being non-verbal was our biggest challenge. Our second biggest challenge was his sensory issues. The smell of food would often send him gaging and running into the next room.
When he was in daycare and then later in elementary school, he always had an early lunch. So when I would pick him up at 4:00pm, all he wanted was his dinner. He was starving.
It was difficult for me to give him a snack at 4:00pm and expect him to wait for everyone to get home (which was anywhere between 6:00pm and 7:00pm) so we could have dinner together. He couldn’t understand that he had to wait just a little longer. Pictograms, rewards, incentives, none of it worked. I was unsuccessful every single time to get him to eat with all of us. On the rare occasion that he would eat lunch with us on a Saturday afternoon, he would often leave at the first sign of “our” food on the table. The smell was always unbearable for him.
And yet I tried. I tried all the time. I would set his place and tell him “there’s room at the table”. But he was happier sitting in his little chair at his little table that was right beside the kitchen.
I felt like a bad mother. I felt like a failure. I felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Comments from other people who didn’t understand our situation only made me feel worse. My responsibility was with my son, trying to help him cope with his sensory issues. His autism was why he was having a difficult time with food, with smell, with sound, with so much. People caught a glimpse of our life; a single still from a lengthy movie they couldn’t possibly grasp in the short time with us. Yet they still felt they knew us well enough to judge and tell me what I was doing wrong.
I got thicker skin and let these comments go.
As the years passed and my son got older, I kept insisting and I kept trying. I kept setting his place and he kept telling me no. In different ways he would try to tell me he wanted to eat alone, quiet, without the smell or sound of anything that would throw him from his center of balance. He couldn’t tolerate it.
Still I tried.
“There’s room at the table honey.”
The answer was still no.
I still felt like a failure. I still felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough, despite all the conversations and the dialogues, I still felt that I could do more. What exactly, I wasn’t sure.
His birthday parties showed me no reprieve either. Regardless of the gifts and the children and the family that was over to celebrate him, he chose when to join us and when to leave.
Still I tried.
“There’s room at the table sweetie.”
“No thank you”.
He walks into a crowed dining room to see what’s going on but with no desire to stay and be among the people who love him. He wants to experience this his way and his way is to pop in and out and watch us from a distance; a distance that he is comfortable with, a distance that he can control and not feel overwhelmed.
Still I try.
“There’s room at the table my love.”
Despite this, he absolutely loves going to the restaurant, sitting together as a family and talking about our day. He doesn’t tell us much about his day but he’s listening and he’s laughing and he’s engaging with us…his way.
I am grateful for this and treasure these precious moments.
He sits with his classmates at lunch and they eat together.
I am grateful for this too because I know he’s not alone or lonely.
I want him to always know how much he’s loved and as his mother I am always walking that balance of teaching him, getting him out of his comfort zone and respecting his voice and his opinions.
Today I tried again.
“Honey, there’s room at the table”.
“Maybe tomorrow”, he replies.
Words that deliver a faint flutter of hope dancing at the pit of my stomach.
Maybe tomorrow… who knows but one thing I do know is this; my son has always moved forward on his own time, in his own direction and with his own internal clock. I cannot and will not go against that. I choose to work with him, encourage him and always assuring him of how much he is loved and how much his words matter.
Beautiful words like “maybe tomorrow”.
And tomorrow I will try again, like I always do. I won’t stop because I want him to know how much he’s part of this family even if he chooses to eat in the other room.
I want him to know with certainty that there will always be room for him at the table.
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