A Birthday with Autism

Sawyer’s birthday is coming up; he turns 10 this year and officially enters the double digits! He is super excited, and can’t wait for his birthday party. 

Birthday celebrations look a lot different than the typical kids’ birthday party for a lot of autism families. Sawyer has only had two “official” birthday parties in his life: a couple of years ago we went to a trampoline park for his birthday and this year we’re going bowling. However, he gets very overwhelmed with parties, so there have been many years where we’ve just done cake and ice cream after a family dinner at our house, or something like last year, where he literally just wanted Burger King and a sleepover with his oldest sister, so I took him and the girls to Burger King to eat and then he spent the weekend with Emily in her dorm room.

I knew early in Sawyer’s life that birthday parties may never be an option. From the time he was an infant, being anywhere there were lots of people was hard for him. He would cry hysterically and fuss a lot, and he had to be held constantly. After we found out he had autism, I understood more why he couldn’t handle social events. The sounds, the visuals, the smells, potentially unfamiliar people- it’s a lot for anybody, but especially those with autism. They process everything so much differently than a neurotypical person would, so all those things are amplified to a point of being scary at times. Sawyer has definitely gotten better about handling events as he’s gotten older, thankfully, but he was 4 before he stopped crying when we sang “Happy Birthday” to him. When he was really little, he couldn’t even handle opening a bunch of presents at once; he would get overwhelmed and cry, and he wouldn’t understand why we moved things away from him to let him open something else. We eventually learned to just give him one gift at a time so he could focus on that one toy for a few minutes before we gave him something else to open. 

As I’ve met and talked to other parents in the autism community, I’ve learned that birthday celebrations like ours are pretty common in other special needs families. In lieu of a huge party with all their classmates and friends, it may be a trip to the movies or a day at the zoo with just family or one or two close friends (or even a meal at Burger King!), and some people may only celebrate at home with all the familiar comforts we’re used to. I used to feel a little guilty about not giving Sawyer big parties like I did with the girls when they were growing up, but I figure as long as it’s a fun day focused on something that he loves, it’s a good day for him. 

This year, we are going bowling and Sawyer is so excited. He’s invited a couple of his friends from school, and he has requested an ice cream cake so that’s what we will do. I can’t wait to watch him laughing with his friends and having fun!

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