While most people are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families this week, we’ve been preparing for quite some time now.  Thanksgiving is quite overwhelming for Nate: lots of family, all of whom want to hug and hold him; new foods and food smells; tons of noise; and new surroundings.

Last Thanksgiving, we were in a very different place.  Days before, we had been told by our pediatrician that Nate was likely on the autism spectrum and we had scheduled testing to begin prior to Christmas.  Nate had also begun headbanging, a behavior that we had a difficult time comprehending.  His limited vocabulary had faded and, at eighteen months, Nate had only taken a few steps on his own in the days prior to visiting Chad’s family.  We were so overwhelmed by it all that we only shared the “maybe” news with Chad’s mom, though I’m sure his siblings and our extended family knew something was up.

Because Nate hadn’t been diagnosed, and we had no clue what the heck autism was, we did a horrible job preparing Nate for the family event.  Chad’s family is large — 50+ at Thanksgiving dinner — so the meal itself is very overwhelming and the same family members cycle in and out of Mam’s house (that’s what Nate will call his Grandma) all weekend long.  While we were nervous about our pediatrician’s news, on the drive to his family’s house, we celebrated the new changes for this event.  The Thanksgiving prior, Chad’s dad passed away and the tenor of the event was quite different, having just come from a funeral.  This year, we would be with everyone in happier times and we could share the traditions with Nate, most importantly — food! — because this time Nate was no longer eating from a jar!

We arrived at Thanksgiving dinner and my brother-in-law’s garage (which is the only space that can house that many people) was packed.  No one had seen Nate in ages, so everyone wanted to say hello.  It was really hot (what’s Maine without a roaring pellet stove?) and noisy with everyone talking.  We got Nate a plate of things we thought he would enjoy–rolls, sweet potatoes, some turkey–and sat down amid a crowded table.  Instead of eating (my boy is a champion eater), he shut down.  Something was not right at all.  So we quickly whisked Nate away to a room in the house with less people, toys, and a treadmill.

For some reason, Nate just needed to work it out, literally, because he walked on a treadmill, holding his Dad’s hands, for a really long time.  That’s all he wanted to do.  Nate was quite jolly about the whole thing but he all he wanted to do was walk on the treadmill.  And later, when we went to the pool room, Nate only wanted to be under the pool table.  We didn’t know he was saying to us, “You’ve got to get me out of here, people!  I can’t take it!”  We just thought he was having fun.  Nate was not having fun.

The nights that we stayed at Mam’s house, Nate had night terrors and we just soothed him until they passed.  But we didn’t realize the damage that had been done until we got home.  Nate stopped walking.  (He eventually tried it again, and succeeded, a few weeks later.)  And he was so traumatized by the event that he forgot he sucked his thumb.  Literally forgot. It was something he had been doing religiously since he was three months old (he just started one day) and all of a sudden it fell out of his vocabulary.  With no way to self-soothe, Nate didn’t sleep through the night for a whole month.  He didn’t begin to suck his thumb again until March of this year.

None of us have the capacity for this type of family-event fallout so, with the help of our therapists, we have been extremely pro-active.  Three weeks ago, Miss Lisa made a special book for Nate entitled “My Thanksgiving.”  It’s an eighteen-page social story, one that tells Nate exactly what will happen and what he can do if he becomes overwhelmed.  The book has been read in nearly every therapy session during these three weeks plus Chad and I read it to our boy.  There are photos of people he will see and it talks about new food smells, hot rooms, and crowds of people.  It also tells Nate that he can say “STOP!” (he has a hand gesture and a PECS card) if he wants people to not touch him or use his “Break” card if he needs Mom or Dad to help him escape a situation.  This morning in therapy, we practiced using the Break card, which isn’t usually part of the repertoire now that he does 1.5 hours of therapy without stopping.  Today, every time he handed us the card (which he used liberally), he was a giddy boy, feeling like he got out of something that he shouldn’t have.

We have talked to some of the family members that we’ll see and explained that Nate needs space.  He will approach people when he’s ready but, until then, no one should try to pick him up or hug him or force him to interact with them.  In addition to the social story, we’ve also been drilling Nate with the photographs of folks he’s going to see this weekend.  He got about 80% correct this morning (if Dad’s in the mix, he always picks Dad regardless of who he’s asked to identify).  It’s an awesome score and, if anything, gets those faces in front of his eyes over and over again so they’re less foreign when he meets them again.

We also bought a cardboard house for Nate to take to Maine.  They are on sale at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $19.99 and are totally wicked awesome.  When constructed, the house is 5′ tall and has “working” doors and windows.  Nate can go in the house to take a time out but he can also share the house with his cousins as they decorate it with markers and stickers.  We just got one for Nate this past weekend and he loves it (as does Archy Cat) so we hope it will be a big, and familiar, hit at Mam’s house.

We feel like we’ve done all we can to prepare Nate for the event….now we just hope and pray for the best…and have his Break card at the ready!  We wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!!!