Our son is nine-and-a-half and he has autism. Birthday parties have always been very difficult for him and that includes his own.
I remember one of his parties when he was just a little guy. Everyone started to sing the birthday song and he was grinning from ear to ear and looking at each of us in wonder. I always wished I'd taken video because of the priceless look on his face. The following year, I wanted to make sure I didn't make the same mistake twice. Can you guess what happened? As soon as we burst into song, he was in tears. And yes, I did catch that one on video. :-\
Since then, we ask him whether or not he wants the birthday song at his party. Usually the answer is no. Or he'll want one of us to sing it to him before the party itself. Most of the time we all tell him "Happy Birthday!" and then he blows out the candles.
When you go to someone else's birthday party, however, you don't have that luxury. We usually take him outside during the birthday song. Sometimes that works and other times he still cries because he wasn't there, even though it would have been much worse if he was (we've tried that, too). Many times we've had a meltdown that lasted 10-45 minutes afterwards.
We also often have to take him out of the room during gift opening. He stresses out about it and cries over it. Taking him out of the room and trying to distract him with something else is usually the best alternative.
Over the last year or so, things have been slowly getting better with each party experience. Sometimes we come away with a smile on our face over a triumph. Other times we have to search and cling to the one bright spot out of a rough experience. But there's almost always something.
Our niece's fifth birthday party was this last Friday. As always, we discussed the day with our son in depth. We also went into it with a game plan.
As we approached cake time, our son surprised me by coming up to me and saying, "No birthday song." There were no tears or anxiety, just a request. I told him that they were going to sing, but that he and I could go outside and look at the flowers instead. He was perfectly happy with the idea and that's just what we did. There were no tears. There was no anxiety or stress. When the song was over we went back inside and he enjoyed a piece of birthday cake.
My husband and I were shocked. That alone was enough to make me want to do back flips. But it wasn't the only success we were going to see that evening.
He sat through the entire gift unwrapping process with his daddy. He had no trouble whatsoever. There was one toy he was particularly curious about and went to go see it, informing us that he "Was just looking."
The triumphs didn't end there. Most of the time, when a party is over and we're headed home, we see evidence of the stress he's gone through for hours afterwards. But this time, he came away from the event perfectly happy.
It reminded me that successes, no matter how tiny they might be, should always be celebrated because they are stepping stones.
The birthday party was a HUGE victory for our son and I couldn't be more proud.