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May 26, 2024

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Autism Acceptance: Bittersweet Birthdays

For one mom, birthdays are an annual reminder to be her son's best friend.

My heart both rejoices and breaks every year when we celebrate my firstborn’s birthday.

I rejoice when I think back to his earlier birthdays when he was about 4 or 5 years old. Each year, he’d pick a new theme for his party, reflecting his current favorite passions.

One year, he loved Blue’s Clues. Another year, trains. The next, magic. Weeks prior to my son’s birthday, I’d plan fun activities, crafts, games and goodie bags to go with the year’s chosen theme. Yes, I was that mom. Even in the days before Pinterest, I loved collecting ideas of how to make every DIY birthday feel special for my son and his friends.

No matter the theme, each birthday party shared one thing in common: a group of friends from preschool or elementary school at our home helping my son celebrate his big day. They played silly games in our living room, ate cake on our back porch and chased one another in our backyard. Laughter filled the air against the noisy backdrop of the slightly uncontrolled chaos of a kid’s birthday party. To see my son’s face light up, to know he felt valued and accepted by his friends, to hear the shared laughter — that was a birthday gift in itself.

My heart swells with happiness when I look at photos of preschool party-goers standing next to the life-size, wooden Bob the Builder cut-out my husband created. I can’t help but smile when I watch the video of birthday attendees wearing their hand-crafted cardboard box race cars as they zoomed around our backyard crashing into each other. Those truly were the happiest of birthdays.

Autism AwarenessFlash Forward to Middle School

Around sixth grade, we began to notice my son’s friends slowly drifting away. It was one by one, like balloons just floating up into the sky, forever out of reach. They stopped inviting my son to their birthday parties. Stopped inviting him to the movies or to just hang out.

By high school, social invitations ceased to exist, except from the neighborhood teen whose family we’ve known since our boys were toddlers. Not only did my son’s old friendships fade away, but new friendships weren’t taking their place. A gaping social hole existed in his life.

Autism Acceptance: What Happened?

In ninth grade, we discovered that my son — always a shy, socially awkward kid — had Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s a talented artist and a smart kid, even qualifying for the gifted program in elementary school. Although quirky, he was such a high-functioning kid that we didn’t connect the Asperger’s dots until high school.

With social and communication difficulties at the crux of Asperger’s, this autism-spectrum disorder often spells a death-sentence to a child’s social life. It delivers a devastating blow to self-confidence. Missing out on the hidden nuances of body language, people with Asperger’s struggle to connect with others, making it difficult to make and keep friends.

The Bittersweet Tinge of Birthdays

In preschool, a dozen or more kids filled our back porch at birthday parties. By middle school, we could fit the entire birthday party — including our family — into our Honda Odyssey.

The very last party was an awkward gathering with two of my son’s friends who knew — but did not like — each other. Painful to watch, it was like a page right out of Agatha Christie’s novel, And Then There Was None.

The heartbreak of it all mirrored a scene in the 1991 movie Little Man Tate, where 7-year-old Fred Tate (whose giftedness made him not fit in with his peers) threw a birthday party and no one showed up. You could see the anguish on the face of his mom, Dede, (played by Jodie Foster). Fred could be my son, and I could be Dede Tate.

What Should Be the Happiest Day of the Year

I am mourning the birthdays of yesteryear filled with two dozen cupcakes, party bags, Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey and squeals of laughter in my backyard. I am yearning for those long-ago days when my son felt accepted and included by his peers. I am missing the days when birthdays felt 100 percent like the celebrations they should be.

As my son’s birthday approaches each year, I still cry a little inside for what should be the happiest day of the year for my son. I must admit, those middle and high school years pummeled my heart when my son’s birthday rolled around. It made me cringe at the shrinking circle of friends who no longer issued or accepted a party invitation. Parties once populated by friends were replaced by family-only celebrations.

But I also celebrate my son, now 24, as he prepares for the next phase of his life. I am his biggest cheerleader and in awe of the man he is turning into, as I watch his self-confidence rebuild. And I silently thrill at the flicker of friendships I see beginning to take shape.



Autism Speaks

Autism Tennessee 

Read More: If You’ve Met One Kid With Autism, You’ve Met One Kid With Autism