Birthdays and autism can be a really rough combination. Birthdays for kids on the spectrum can be a sensory overload circus. (I have years of videos and pictures of J covering his ears and crying at not only his birthday parties, but W’s too.). Milestone birthdays are rough on parents because it’s another one of those reminders of all of the things your kid isn’t doing.
When W turned 14 in August, we threw her a masquerade murder mystery party. I even made homemade stuffed shells and bought rosemary rolls from Breadsmith and cheesecake to make the dinner part fancy schmancy. She prepped for that party almost a full month in advance, assigning each of her friends the perfect character. Crafting the perfect mask.
Every year, Steve and I struggle with how to celebrate J’s birthday. J isn’t a very social person. We’ve tried “event” parties in the past–bowling, karaoke, movies and pizza. They were fine, but stressful on all of us. Last year, we had friends from church over–and they were fabulous, but J really isn’t great at holding conversations and still gets overwhelmed with all of the attention. It’s not that J doesn’t like his birthday–in fact, he really loves it when people wish him a happy birthday–he just isn’t into the marathon celebration part.
So what kind of birthday do you have for a kid who is excited for 16 but gets overwhelmed with the birthday party business and doesn’t really socialize and has very few extra curricular interests?
Well, J loves running. The kids he socializes with the most often are his XC teammates. We’ve brought birthday treats for J’s birthday in the past. What if we just left the birthday celebration at that? Right now, for J, life doesn’t get any better than this: going for a run, and hanging out with running friends.
Thursday night, on the way back from J’s XC meet in Perham, I texted on of J’s coaches and asked him if it would be okay to bring birthday treats after Friday’s practice. Friday afternoon, I sent Steve over with enough treats for 48 teenage boys (yes–the team is HUGE this year). I didn’t see how it all went down, but Steve said the boys were really awesome with J. The senior boys came in with Steve and the treats and led the whole team in a “Happy Birthday” and all the boys were super great with J. And that was it! J came home excited to tell me about the treats he had with his friends, and how great his day had been. We let him pick out a restaurant to eat at (just as a family), opened some presents, and he went to bed, completely content and satisfied with his birthday treatment.
I know birthdays are an important cultural phenomenon. I remember my mom throwing elaborate parties for me and my sister in our backyard, full of treasure hunts and money hidden in homemade cakes. When my kids were little–even now with W–I still feel the pressure to put on something big for my kids, just so I can help them feel special and come away from their childhood with good memories. (Thankfully, when my kids were really little, I didn’t have the pressure of Instagram and Pinterest to make my kids parties as elaborate as I see as I scroll through those sites. Seriously, the smash cakes and event parties for a one year old these days!)
I used to hate the fact that J wouldn’t subscribe to the dog and pony show birthday parties but at the same time I never liked them myself. Steve and I would end up tag teaming–one of us to help J get through the whole ordeal while the other entertained the guests who so graciously turned out to a kid that was almost impossible to socialize with. I got embarrassed when J would inevitably melt into tears when everyone around him was so excited. Those were some stressful times.
J’s 16th birthday was the most quiet, low key birthday parties of his life and not only was J okay with it, but I was okay with it. Maybe I’m older and more tired. Maybe I’m past putting on a show for myself and others.