Why We Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ With My Autistic Son Every Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and with it comes the yearly conundrum faced by this autism family and our extended family.

Whom should we sing “Happy Birthday” to on Thanksgiving Day? The turkey? The pilgrims and Native Americans? We’ve regaled them all over the years.

I think a little explanation is in order.

boy in blue shirt holding lollipop

My autistic son, now 13, loves to sing “Happy Birthday” at every family gathering. In his worldview, it’s not a party until we sing “Happy Birthday.” And our big extended family always sings along.

Sometimes the holiday/Happy Birthday mash-up is effortless. On Easter, we sing “Happy Birthday” to the Easter Bunny. On the Fourth of July, we sing to Uncle Sam or America. In a few weeks, our Christmas carol will be “Happy Birthday Jesus.”

But Thanksgiving is always a bit of a stumper. (Let’s face it, “Happy Birthday Turkey” is just wrong on too many levels.)

Really, though, the conundrum is not a big deal. The way our family welcomes our son’s contribution to family gatherings is.

They all appreciate the dazzling joy on his face when we sing his favorite song. They understand he needs to spend much of the gathering outside with his dog or in a quiet room with my husband or me until his big moment. It’s really no big deal to them.

It is a big deal to my husband and me because they’ve always embraced him for who he is, just as they’ve embraced every family member, whatever quirks or other qualities they bring to the table. We are thankful for their acceptance and unconditional love because we know not everyone experiences it at their holiday table.

So, when we gather for Thanksgiving, I’ll bring the potatoes. Nan will make her oyster stuffing. Another family member will bring salads and salmon Nanbanzuke-style (nanbanzuke is a Japanese fish dish).

Our son will bring the joy of song. And I will have much to be thankful for.

boy laying next to his dog

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or illness during the holiday season, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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