My daughter wasn’t invited to any birthday parties until she was deep into her threes. We made appearances at a few of those parties, and then the invites stopped coming. I don’t take it personally, but I noticed. I get it. Everyone wants to have this social-media-picture-perfect party and it’s hard to do when you have an attendee that screams over loud noises, doesn’t listen well, and has a meltdown during every transition.
The first birthday party we attended was at a local gym. Things were rough in the beginning and we almost left, but then she settled in and sort of participated when it was time to dance or run around the gym. I also had to participate, making me the only parent who didn’t get to sit in the chairs watching from the sidelines, making small talk with the other parents. At one point, the father of the birthday girl approached me and quietly gave me some words of encouragement, noting that my daughter was doing great, after she had settled in. Leaving the party was almost as hard as arriving – putting my daughter’s shoes on was much like trying to get shoes on an alligator. At one point, a mother – the same woman who once asked me if autism is what is “wrong” with my daughter – stood over me, offering advice on how to get my daughter to settle down about leaving. It was awkward and awful, but during the party she played with her peers and ate pizza with them, so I chose to hold on to those memories.
The second party we attended was held at a local pizza/ice cream place that grows fresh strawberries you can pick yourself. It also has an animal sanctuary and petting zoo. Again, things were rough at the start. My daughter loved the animal encounters, and aside from trying to walk away with the bearded dragon, she was great for that portion of the party. Then. she just stopped listening. She hit me in front of all the parents and kids. Had a meltdown when I said she couldn’t eat anymore candy, which led to me carrying her out of the venue kicking and screaming while everyone watched, aghast. There were no cordial goodbyes and we didn’t get the goody-bag that has become a standard at birthday parties either.
The third party we were invited to was at Chuck E. Cheese and because I hate myself, I took her. We lasted 8 minutes. Eight minutes was long enough to drop off a gift, play a couple of games, and then the noise and crowds were more than she could take.
After that, the invites stopped. In fact, one parent threw a party for her child at my daughter’s daycare and didn’t even include my daughter because she “heard” she didn’t like birthday parties. Relocated to the younger kids room while her friends sang happy birthday and ate cake, my daughter was sad and left out. The first thing she showed me at pick-up was everyone’s gift bags with cool little sensory balls in them — she wanted one too. I took her home that night and threw our own makeshift birthday party, complete with a plate of blueberries as “cake”. I lit a candle, sang happy birthday and presented her with a gift bag I had thrown together from things around the house. She loved our impromptu birthday party, and her smile throughout our private party for 2 was priceless.
My daughter is incredibly social and she enjoys company, but she is still learning about birthday parties. They are somewhat structured, but the environment and activities are always changing, which can be difficult for a child with autism to navigate. She just hasn’t had enough practice to know all the ins and outs of birthday party routines. I need to do a better job prepping her if we ever get invited to another one through social stories. I have a feeling she will want to go to every party once she gets the hang of it.
She is turning four in a couple of weeks and we are going to have a low-key family party because it will make her happy and because selfishly, I want to enjoy it without worrying about other parents watching and waiting for some sign of autism. Because that’s how it feels at this point, but maybe I am just being too sensitive. She will love to have her cousins and family around for the day and if I am not stressed, hopefully she won’t be either. And I think this might be the year she actually eats some cake too!
These cool sensory balls will definitely be in the gift bags!