About two weeks ago at the bus stop one of the parents invited Jack to our little neighbor friend’s birthday party. As any autism mom will tell you, two simultaneous thoughts went through my mind “that is SO nice of them to include him” and “crap”. There are few social activities harder than a birthday party for a young child with autism. We had dinner with another autism family on Saturday night and I told the mom, “we have a birthday party tomorrow.” Her response was “ughhh”. I am not alone J
Noise- check, crowds- check, waiting- check, looking at a pile of presents and accepting that they are not for you- roger that.
I refuse to allow MY fears about Jack’s reactions at a party to get in the way of him attending. As long as we can find a work around, I want him to go, and I am happy to take him. But I don’t enjoy it. At all.
So I start prepping him well ahead of time. First I ask if he wants to go- because if he says no, why am I going through all of this? Of course he never says no, he’s a kid! After this is established the true work begins. The quizzing- “whose birthday is it Jack?” “do we touch other kids’ presents?” “do we open other kids’ presents?” “do we try to eat cake before they sing the birthday song?” “do we scream during the birthday song?” “do we rush the mom for cake when the song ends (or bite her ankles- kidding)?”
You get the point.
There is a reason why social stories are employed for children with autism. Much of these typical social graces just do not come naturally to Jack, even though his heart is always in the right place. But talking definitely helps.
And so on Sunday we went to the birthday party. I am constantly making a contingency plan in case of a meltdown- they live a block and a half away but I drove in case we needed to make a quick escape. I showed Jack the present multiple times and quizzed him- whose is this? Do we open it? Do we take it? When we got to the party all of the kids were jumping in the bounce house in the back yard. Jack did not want to join, which is not that unusual, he needs to kind of “feel out” his surroundings at first, so he came inside with me to where the grown-ups were. Oh, and did I mention there were two hermit crabs? Really there’s nothing else to the story- kidding. As always, there was some well-meaning adult who kept repeating things like “wow, he really loves hermit crabs” or “why doesn’t he want to talk about anything but hermit crabs?” or “why don’t you get him one?” Because I want to sleep someday, that’s why. I offered no explanation and just practiced my new routine, smile and nod, smile and nod.
His obsession was reignited for the day- he was glued to the tank for quite a while, but with some prompting he stopped pounding on the glass and trying to take them out- victory. The mom called everyone down to the basement, they had a small exotic animal "show“ for the kids. The first thing the teacher did was show us how she would signal us to be quiet. By clapping her hands really loudly. For the love of God woman. Luckily Jack just quietly clamped his hands over his ears at that point, didn’t scream or anything. Unfortunately, it was a crowd of small children and this clapping was repeated no less than fifteen times- he was not amused. Then she explained that for the duration of the “show” (about an hour), the kids were to sit in a circle, “crisscross applesauce” with hands in their laps so they could see the animals. Oh boy. I sat down directly behind Jack and whispered the reminders over and over again. He. Did. Beautifully. I was really really proud of him. Did he have times when he drove the woman crazy with questions? Based on the fact that at one point she turned to him and said “when I am done with the presentation you may ask me 3 questions”, I’m going to have to go with yes. Frankly, by her reaction to some of the things he was asking, he may have been over her head, ha. He knows so many facts about “creatures” that I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case. He only asked to leave for a “break” once- we headed up to see the hermit crabs for a little breather and headed back down. He skipped the turtle races (the kids were divided into teams- it was really cute) at the end and hung out eating gummy worms. I was ok with that, although I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t really try to interact with the kids at the party at all, until the last 15 or so minutes.
Then it was cake time. That moment that every parent with a sensory sensitive child dreads, and I’m guessing that if we dread it, our children dread it even more. Jack would not allow the birthday song to be sung at his party earlier this year, which was fine. Some well- meaning soul asked if maybe we could sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” instead, ummm, that’s really not the point. So instead Jack blew the candles out in silence- someone started to clap and suddenly I was the bionic woman, jumping across the room “noooooooo!!!!!!” That nipped it in the bud, and the fact that we were at a noisy farm also helped. In any case, Jack is wise enough at this point to know that he will do better if he goes into another room when the birthday song is sung at another child’s party. He asks to do it. So we went outside, and every time someone would try to open the door, he would freak. He did NOT want to hear the singing or clapping. The one issue with this strategy is that by the time we come back into the room, there is always a long wait for a piece of cake. This is hard for any kid, but Jack’s difficulties with self-regulation make it extra challenging for him. Yesterday, the mom swooped over and just handed me a piece of cake in a covert manner. I always knew I liked her. Jack sat on the deck and chatted with three other little boys, which involved “hilarious” jokes about pooping in pants- my perfect boy didn’t quite catch that and looked at the kids like they were morons and said, I poop in the potty. Sigh. Love. Him.