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Why I Stopped Throwing Birthday Parties for My Son on the Autism Spectrum

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baby with cake on his face

To say that I love parties is an understatement. From planning the theme, to picking out invitations, creating the atmosphere, selecting the food, down to the anticipation of the guests arriving… oh mercy, I’m getting lightheaded just thinking about it. I love people and small talk and games and food; I’m good at parties.

So when I became a mother, the thought of creating wonderful party memories with my children was something I looked forward to and daydreamed about often. I think I had my first child’s birthday party planned before I even picked out his name. It was a pond theme complete with fishing games, party hats and a frog cake, and I was in amphibian heaven.

Every year after that, the parties got harder. And the harder they became, the harder I worked at making them even more elaborate and fun. Maybe, I thought, if I brought a real puppy to a puppy-themed party, our guests wouldn’t notice him ignoring his gifts and playing with cups from the table. You see, birthday parties don’t mix well with my son, who’s on the autism spectrum.

On his 4th birthday, he sat in his room the whole party watching Wiggles videos with his door closed while the other children ate cake and played on his brand new swing set. After the guests had gone home and the cake was put away, I sat in my room and wept. I had just spent my precious son’s entire birthday engaging other children and cutting cake while he sat in his room alone.

Still, I continued to do birthday parties for my son. I mean, what kind of mother doesn’t throw her kid a party? What would people think? Our life was already so different. And his sister loved birthday parties — I didn’t want people to think I loved her more or thought of him less.

He started to reach a socially acceptable age to stop the birthday party charade, and we settled into outings with the family to celebrate his big day, and he was so happy to just be with us. This was around the same time baby number 3 arrived and parties for him started up again.

As you can imagine, my favorite party was my own personal pity parties, and they were quite an affair! But what’s that saying… “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.” Needless to say, I imagine He laughs His Holy head off at me daily. Following my son’s autism diagnosis and four failed attempts at birthday parties, I decided something had to change. I knew people would look at me strange and I might even make some family and friends upset, but we just couldn’t do it anymore. All the planning, the money, the decorations… it hadn’t been for my boys at all. It had been for me. I desperately wanted “normalcy” for them — and for me. I wanted pictures and cake and friends to celebrate, even if that meant making my child miserable in the process. I knew deep down I owed them more than that — they deserved so much more than my selfishness masked by brightly colored balloons.

As Eli’s 5th birthday approached, I racked my brain about how to make his birthday special and memorable and his. It’s hard to ask a child what he wants to do for his birthday when he can’t speak, but because he’s ours… I brainstormed with my fellow Eli experts. I remember asking my husband and my big kids, “If Eli could have a day that was just his, what do you think he would want to do?” “Well, he likes looking at himself in the mirror!” “And he likes eating at Moe’s!” “Oh, and since we can never figure out what he likes to play with, we could just take him to a toy store and let him play with everything!” And Eli Day was born.

We started off the day with lunch at Moe’s… you know, “Welcome to Moe’s!” Eli got his favorite lunch and two cookies, and we let him stand up in the booth and invade the other patron’s personal space as much at he wanted.. I mean, it’s Eli day! Next, we headed to the biggest mirror we could find: the one on the side of the escalator at the mall. Although people stared and looked annoyed, we let him loose. He ran in front of that mirror a million times, jumping and doing his “Eli moves” and faces. I had never seen his little face so happy — that beautiful face was beaming. And though it wasn’t a “normal” birthday activity, it was absolute perfection to me. It totally kicked “normal’s” butt, and I didn’t have to pay a “per kid” fee for everyone else to have fun. Next we headed to the Toy Store; Eli was in charge. We let him walk down every aisle, touching every toy. When we thought we saw something that peaked his interest, we would hold it in front of him along with another option and tell him to pick, and when he did, he got to put it in the cart. And when he insisted on buying yet another Woody doll, we happily agreed. It didn’t have to make sense to us because it made sense to him and it was his day. Instead of cake when we got home… that’s right folks… more cookies because that’s Eli.

As I lay in bed that night and thought about his day, I wept — but only happy tears. Are you starting to see a pattern here? I’m a crier! For the first time, I celebrated my son for exactly who he is — all the things that make him different and unique. It was the first birthday I didn’t spend my day making sure other children were happy… I spent my day watching him be happy. And that was the best gift I could have ever received.

So is my career as a party planner done? Nope, I just threw a pretty awesome (if I do say so myself) glamping slumber party for my daughter last week complete with make-your-own trail mix, an inflatable deer and a faux campfire. But she is her mother’s daughter and like me, she loves a party and being the life of it. That’s what made her face beam on her birthday. Just like Isaac prefers a day riding roller coasters with his dad. That’s his idea of a perfect birthday! I’m convinced that no three children containing the same parental DNA have ever been so different. But I like different, and I think we do it better than anybody.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe your experience of not quite fitting under one specific diagnosis or a label your community identifies with. If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: April 14, 2016
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