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Silence is Golden

This post is by Liane Kupferberg Carter a mother of two adult sons, one of whom has autism and epilepsy. Liane is a journalist whose articles and essays have appeared in more than 40 publications. As a community activist, she has worked with both national and local organizations.

It originally appeared in autismafter16.com. Autism After 16 is a website dedicated to providing information and analysis of adult autism issues. You can read the original post here.

Every year at Thanksgiving, there comes a moment after dinner when I need to escape.

I should say up front that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I revel in it. But no matter how much fun we are having, no matter how full my heart is with good will and satisfaction and joy, I reach a point when everything becomes too much. An aural assault. I feel an overpowering urge to step outside into the November night air.

Each year I make the same excuse to myself –I just need to shake out the crumbs from the tablecloth—and step onto the front porch. The blast of cold air on my face is bracing. Reviving. Sound falls away and the world goes silent.

This year, as I took in great gulps of wintry cold air, it struck me: This is how Mickey must feel, when he reaches the tipping point of sensory overload and says, “I’ve had enough.”

When Mickey was 8 and Jonathan 13, we flew to Arizona for our niece’s bat mitzvah. Mickey fidgeted but managed to sit through the religious service, even singing along to familiar songs. At the end of the ceremony, we moved across the hall into the banquet room. We slammed up against a wall of thrumming music and flashing lights. Mickey flung himself to the floor and clutched his hands over his ears. People stared. Then they stepped over him.

Embarrassed, I tried to coax him up. He wouldn’t budge. “This isn’t going to work,” my husband Marc said. “I’ll go back to the hotel with him.”

“But your family is all here, I don’t want you to miss out,” I said. “You and Jonathan should stay. I’ll take Mickey back.”

We returned to our spacious, serene suite. I called room service and ordered Mickey’s favorite meal: a burger and fries. After dinner he played with his Game Boy. I read a novel. We were both perfectly happy. The truth? I don’t like loud parties either.

Having a child with these sensitivities opened a window into myself. I always hated crowded rooms. Strobe lights. Roller coasters. I thought it was a character flaw. I didn’t realize it was just the way I was wired.

Just the way he is wired.

“I’ve had enough.” He says it adamantly, often while the rest of us are still having fun. For years, I cajoled. Reasoned. Even bribed him. I wanted him to sit longer at religious services. Stay later at the party. Last through the movie.

Did I have my own agenda? Was it more about my desires than his? Or am I beating myself up too much? Mickey has always resisted anything unfamiliar, whether tasting a vegetable or trying an art class. I believe it’s my job as his parent to expose him to as many new experiences as I can. I want to open the richness of the world to him. When is it okay to push? How hard? When to pull back? It’s an intricate dance.

It has taken me a long time to understand that he doesn’t mean to be difficult or self-absorbed. He is simply advocating for what he needs. Just as I need my moments of respite and retreat, Mickey does too.

Which is a good thing. A marvelous thing, in fact.

Standing there Thanksgiving night, inhaling the cold, restorative air, I shook out more than tablecloth crumbs.