I have a large, lovely, crazy, wonderful extended family. When we get together for the holidays, there is usually around 30 people. ‘Most everyone is happy to see everyone else, and there is lots of conversation, laughter, and catching up.

In any gathering like this, you can see that some people get more easily overwhelmed than others. You can find a brother-in-law sitting alone reading, or a teenager lying on the couch listening to her ipod.

But what do you do when your kid is really, really sensitive? And shy? When s/he gets overwhelmed very quickly? And doesn’t know how to fit in?

We managed to avoid most of these difficult questions this year, because we missed Thanksgiving. We were in Maui.

But when we came back, I started to miss my large, lovely, crazy, wonderful extended family. So we called my older brother, Dan, and invited ourselves to his house for an overnighter.

I prepared in advance for this visit by listening to an RDI Webinar that gave  tips for holiday visits. One of their strategies was to make sure that the child with autism had a quiet place to retreat to.

Hearing that was a real “Ah ha!” moment for me.

You see, my younger brother, Aaron, has two lively young girls. As much as we love them, when we’ve stayed there I’ve seen Joseph get very withdrawn. He gets w-a-y overwhelmed and there is no private, quiet space for him to recover. He always sleeps badly.

I haven’t known how to explain to Aaron why we can’t stay with them, but now I have the words: Joseph needs a quiet place to retreat to.

Dan and his wife, on the other hand, have kids who are grown and gone. So half of  their house feels like a peaceful sanctuary.

Another plus is that Dan has a dog. Normally the mere presence of a dog would make the whole visit unthinkable, as Joseph is terrified of them. But this is no ordinary dog: this is a chihuahua. All four pounds of her.

Because she is so tiny, Joseph is not really scared of Randi. Randi is the one and only dog in our acquaintance who has this distinction, so it is no small thing. She is a great practice dog for us.

The RDI Webinar said to find roles for Joseph as much as possible, as it’s not always easy for people with autism to know what to do — how to fit in — among other people. So I got him involved in drawing and then giving the drawings to people. When it was dinnertime, he helped with table setting and various other things.

It worked really well. And then he slept beautifully.

Yesterday there were only the five of us, and then this morning two of Joseph’s cousins (the grown-up kids) arrived. At first, Joseph kept his distance. But eventually he felt comfortable enough to join us at the kitchen table.

Later, when it came time to go out, he requested that his cousins ride in our car, one on each side of him. This was big.

When they first sat beside him, he covered his eyes (he is both autistic and shy. I don’t know which was happening there — maybe both.) But slowly the hands came down and he connected, smiling and talking with them.

So there it is. Nothing monumental, but these small steps in connecting are huge steps for Joseph.

My hope is that, as Joseph makes these connections with members of his extended family a bit at a time, it will eventually be easier to be with more of them at the same time.

*            *         *

Joseph isn’t the only one in our little family who needs a quiet place. That’s one of the main reasons I meditate. My teacher says to create a portable paradise of peace within, and I don’t know what I’d do without that peaceful place.

Since Joseph was born to parents who meditate, we will, when the time is right,  teach him to do it as well. So perhaps he’ll learn to access the peace that passes understanding within his very own self.

Wouldn’t that go a long way in being able to stay centered and unshaken in crowded gatherings? We wouldn’t have to stay only in houses with quiet places when Joseph comes from that quiet place inside.

It will be interesting to see what happens when Joseph learns to turn inward for his solace — to turn to God for the calmness, peace, and serenity he needs.

I find it absolutely invaluable to live my life (as best I can) from the inside out, where my internal world defines my external world. It gives me much more serenity than living from the outside in, where what’s happening externally determines my level of serenity– or, more often, my lack thereof.

So what will happen when Joseph learns to live from the inside out? What will happen when autism meets yoga?

Stay tuned, dear reader, stay tuned.

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