This blog post was written by Kathy Hooven and her son, Ryan, who has autism. You can read more about Kathy and her family on her blog, "The AWEnesty of Autism."
Dear Thanksgiving Day Host,
Before we arrive in a few days, I just wanted to take a minute and thank you for offering to host Thanksgiving Day dinner. I am beyond thankful. In fact, when you said, “Why don’t you guys come here?”, I swear I hung up the phone and screamed, “Hallelujah I don’t have to stick my hands inside that cold, dead bird and pull out whatever the heck is in there!!” That alone, makes you almost like a Thanksgiving Day God to me.
To show my appreciation of getting to forego this gross, yet delicious tradition, I promise I will eat EVERYTHING you put on that Thanksgiving Day Feast Table! The turkey (white and dark meat), the stuffing, the mashed potatoes (with or without lumps), the gravy, the cranberry sauce, the corn and even the sweet potatoes (which I kind of hate) - I’m sure my family and I will love it all. Well, all of us minus one.
Ryan’s not going to eat any of it. Nope. Not a bite. Not a taste. But, perhaps a lick. A lick is Ryan's way of confirming that whatever touches his tongue isn't "deadly" and won’t kill him. So, no matter how many stars the recipe got on Allrecipes.com, Ryan’s not buying it or trying it. I’m sorry. Sort of. Not really.
Just keep in mind, no matter how much work you put into the feast, no matter how much time you spent making the table look like something Marth Stewart would drool on the turkey for, he is not trying to ruin your Martha moment. You may very well make a pumpkin pie that would make Libby jealous and ask for seconds, but, my kid isn’t asking for firsts or seconds. If the pie smells good, Ryan may take a tiny lick with the very tip of his tongue which may horrify you and your other guests, but, honestly, if even the very tip of his tongue touches a piece of that pie, you should not be offended by what is perceived as lack of manners, you should be thankful that he thought your pie smelled good enough for the tongue test. Chances are, it will not pass the tongue test (so few things do), but the fact your pie got tested by him at all is a much better rating than any star you’re going to get on AllRecipes.com.
I know that I have talked to you before about how autism makes Ryan extremely sensitive to tastes, smells and textures. But with all the excitement of the perfect Thanksgiving Day feast, sometimes I think you forget. I know that the pictures in Bon Appetit Magazine do not show a photo of a kid happily licking a piece of pumpkin pie and it may not show Velveeta Shells and Cheese gracing the exquisite holiday dinnerware. So perhaps Ryan doesn’t quite fit in the picture you have in your mind of this perfect day, but I want you to know that as difficult as it may be for you to accept that your food is not Bon Appetit quality in Ryan's book, it’s even more difficult for him to be asked to “just try it”. He can’t try it, he won’t try it, so he’s not going to try it. His body won't let him, so please respect that and know that he is happy and not starving.
Even though his plate will consist of a bun and the Velveeta Shells and Cheese we brought from home, rest assured, Ryan is still thankful to be a part of the day. A day that includes sitting around your table listening to 12 people having 12 different conversations while the television blares the much anticipated football game as his sensory system takes in the smells of 12 different foods coming from the kitchen. All of these things are more difficult for Ryan to handle than asking me to stick my hand inside 12 cold, dead, turkeys and pull out that "stuff". Ryan is trying to be a part of the day, a part of the picture, even if his part looks different than you imagined.
I don’t want to apologize again this year because I’m not sorry, I’m thankful. No more “I’m sorry he didn’t eat” or “I’m sorry he doesn’t like____(insert any word that is not Velveeta Shells and Cheese here)" or “I’m sorry the holiday music was infused with some Spongebob scripting”. No, I’m done apologizing. The only thing I’m sorry about has to do with me, not him.
I’m sorry that my boy may never knew how delicious it is to scoop up stuffing and mashed potatoes in one bite or how fabulous a piece of cold turkey is the day after Thanksgiving when you’ve recovered from your turkey hangover and you decide to break the absurd promise you made to swear off ever eating turkey again. But I am grateful that my son has the ability to express himself in whatever way he can. I’m thankful that he has a voice to say, “That looks gross” or “No way is that going in my mouth”. I am thankful that he is able to tell me, and you, what his body can and can not tolerate. Not all people living with autism can do that. So, I’m not sorry that he only licked your pie then wasted it and that you had to “dirty one more pot” to make his Velveeta Shells and Cheese. The only thing I am sorry for is that you may be overlooking what matters most.
You may have the perfect idea of what Thanksgiving Day is supposed to look like. The table, the food, the cornucopia centerpiece and even the guests surrounding the beautifully, meticulously adorned table. Maybe having someone who is different at your table skews that picture a bit. But isn’t learning and sharing one another’s differences what the very first Thanksgiving Day Feast was all about? Sitting down to share a meal in order to understand and show respect for one another’s differences? I’m willing to bet that those guests at the very first Thanksgiving Day Feast may have eaten without matching flatware, grabbed a second bun without asking, talked in a manner not everyone understood and possibly even licked their food to determine if the food might possibly be "deadly". Gasp!
Just like the Pilgrims and the Native Americans were trying to understand and accept one another’s differences, all those Thanksgivings ago, Ryan and others living with autism are trying to understand our differences too, and they hope you will provide them with the same courtesy. Ryan could not imagine EVER letting his potatoes touch his stuffing (if he were to ever eat them), let alone putting two types of food in his mouth at THE EXACT SAME TIME - even though I can’t imagine ever eating just a bite of potatoes without stuffing. That doesn’t mean that I am wrong and that doesn’t mean that he is wrong. It just means that how we eat and what we eat, be it Thanksgiving or any other day, is different.
So, this Thanksgiving (and the other 364 days of the year), my son and I would be incredibly thankful if you took some time to try and understand him rather than judge him. To appreciate him rather than disparage him. To accept him rather than dismiss him. And maybe then, your perfect pie, your beautiful table, and your pot soaking in the sink with remnants of Velveeta Shells and Cheese stuck to the sides, won’t matter quite as much as they did last year. Maybe, you and your guests could take a lesson from the guests gathered around that first Thanksgiving Day table by recognizing there are more things that you have in common than there are differences. And in order to share the the table, the feast and the world, we have to learn to accept one another’s differences, even if it means tongue testing the pumpkin pie.
Thanks for listening. Thanks for understanding. Thanks for accepting. And thanks for cleaning out the turkey.