As a parent to a toddler on the autism spectrum, birthdays were hard. Seeing my son around his peers was a very loud reminder of just how old he was and where he was developmentally.
In those pre-autism-diagnosis days, we attempted all the traditional birthday festivities that a typical child would enjoy and our son wanted nothing to do with any of it. We couldn’t get him to open a present, listen to the “Happy Birthday” song or even look at his cake, let alone taste it. He ignored all of our friends and family and their birthday well-wishes.
My friends would tell sweet stories about words their children were saying and I would completely miss the cuteness and celebration of it all. I was stuck on the fact that those children were talking and my boy wasn’t.
I was jealous and then I felt guilt and anger about that jealousy. So many ugly emotions.
One year we really didn’t want to do anything to celebrate his birthday. It’s so frustrating when something that is supposed to be fun ends up overwhelming and upsetting him.
Parents: if you can relate to this, I want to remind you to hang in there.
Over time, our son has shown us that birthdays should not be hard or sad. Or remind us of his delays. He has shown us how to best celebrate him, and that it’s OK if that doesn’t look “typical”.
This past year, our little six-year-old had the best birthday celebration to date. Friends brought his favorite things: old keys, wooden treasure chests and tons of other pirate paraphernalia.
He was so happy.
He still didn’t eat the cake, but he did request the birthday song multiple times and all of our friends and family indulged him in several rounds of the tune. The look on his face while we sang to him was better than the byproduct of any cookie-cutter birthday party I had imagined in years past.
Attending his peers’ birthday celebrations was and remains a whole other ball game. Our little guy doesn’t understand this it isn’t his day. He believes candles should be blown out and presents should be opened, simple as that.
We’re navigating these events more smoothly with visual schedules and a lot of planning ahead. This usually means bringing his own candle along so he can blow it out and staying for a brief visit before he gets overwhelmed. Knowing what is ahead is huge – we don’t want to be bothersome to the party-planners but most often need to know the details for the sake of EVERY invitee’s enjoyment.
We’ve learned to not only try new things, but to revisit old tactics that may have not worked the first time around. Keep trying all the things: silly, practical, innovative and traditional.
I can’t tell you how many times things have gone differently than I expected them to. These moments often times felt like a failure. Now I know they were just stepping stones to get us where we need to be. It’s all worth a try to make our boy feel strong, calm, and happy.
Progress will happen. It just might look different than you had imagined. Be careful not to miss it.
Your child will grow and change. And you will too.
You will learn how to best celebrate them in a way that is so incredibly special to them. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t interested in the latest Marvel characters, sports teams or Disney princesses.
I will celebrate my little pirate and continue to round up old keys for him forever if that is what endlessly fascinates him and makes him happy.
Now, we celebrate BIG. No more comparisons. Our boy is in a league of his own, right where he belongs.