“My family is insisting my autistic child should have a birthday party, but my child gets sensory overload from parties and hates the change in routine. What should I do?”
Sound familiar? I’ve heard different wordings for this question multiple times over the past few years in groups. Outside influences, or mommy guilt, insist that a big to-do about the child’s birthday must happen or you’re the worst parent in the world and you don’t love your kid. But if past parties have sent your kid into meltdown and made them miserable, I’ve got one question for you:
Who is the party for?
Because if parties make your child an anxious, overloaded mess: you’re not celebrating that child. You’re attempting to make your child seem “normal” so that your relatives will feel good about themselves. And that’s a pretty crappy thing to do to any child on their birthday. And of course, it’s all the autistic kid’s fault if they’re not grateful for the party. Happy birthday, kid, here’s a heaping pile of guilt as your gift! Don’t forget to violate your body autonomy and let Aunt Gertrude hug you!
Okay, I may have gone a little overboard with the sarcasm there.
Lady Bug’s birthday is coming up this month, which is why I’m thinking of this topic right now. Last year I felt super guilty for not throwing a party for her. Parties don’t overwhelm Lady Bug, thankfully. Mostly they underwhelm. As in, she doesn’t really notice or care what’s going on. Last year I tried to convince her her birthday was the thing they talk about on the Signing Time Happy Birthday To You dvd that she liked so much. I set out decorations and balloons. I set up some gift bags with treats in them to try to convince her that presents were worth opening. (She remained unconvinced.) The year before that we made an IRL Birthday Machine from her favorite show at the time, Little Einsteins. And of course, we always have cup-cakes.
Since her last birthday (pictured) Lady Bug has show some interest when others have had birthdays. She definitely gets that birthday=cake, which is pretty cool. I saved the decorations I used last year to use again every year. I’m hoping the consistency of the decorations with further cement the idea in her mind. But I’m not going to make it into something more until I’m sure that’s what she wants. Right now she’s really sensory sensitive and is naked when it’s just family at home. A party means visitors, which means she’ll have to wear clothes, which means she’ll be asking for naked and getting told “no” a lot. Not the best way to spend her 5th birthday. But a day where the routine is the same, and everything is as it should be except there are pretty decorations up and cake? That sounds like a really nice birthday. It’s okay if that’s all you do, if that’s what your kid wants. Let go of the neurotypical “should”s and embrace the low key, sensory friendly birthday. I don’t think you’ll regret it.