Birthday parties, autistics, parents and choices

While many parents feel a great deal of pain in accepting the reality of a birthday party-less life for their autistic child, I have found that there are in fact some parents, a small number, that just don’t seem to get it.

The usual problem

birthday party
The problem that most autism parents face is isolation… that feeling you get when your child is never invited to birthday parties. The parent feels this through osmosis, meaning, they feel isolated because their child feels isolated. They know that the question is coming one day: “Mom/Dad, how come I never get invited to birthday parties?”

It’s a terrible feeling, and not just because it is saddening, but it’s also maddening. Because deep down, you know the reason. In fact, in a way, you probably don’t even want your child to go to those birthday parties. So loud, so bright, so much excitement, socializing, awkwardness…. yes, for many children with autism, it’s far more a nightmare than a dream and yet… the child doesn’t know that. They just know, or one day will know, that they are missing out on a world of fun.

And so, as a parent, you are left with a twisted up stomach, knowing your child feels alone, knowing your child feels like they’re always left behind, knowing that one day your child will ask you and knowing that one day, you’ll have to answer.

The unusual problem

In my son’s (Cameron) case, we don’t have the usual problem because of the great school that he attends. He is in a “regular school” but they have dedicated 5 classrooms to children with autism, which means that his friends all have autism as well.

So when his friends have a birthday party, he’s invited. Or when he has a birthday party, he has friends to invite. It’s actually pretty awesome in many respects because, not only are they not missing out, but they’re gaining those valuable party skills that they’ll need in college (hey, I can dream, can’t I?).

Here’s the thing… even though the other kids in all of those 5 classes have autism, not all of their parents really “get it”. What I mean is, they don’t realize how lucky they are to have their kids going to birthday parties.

The problem that I face, is whether or not to invite certain other autism children from those classrooms. They’re the ones that easily meltdown, easily get aggressive, have little verbal ability…  you have to understand, they’re great kids and I love to see them when I stop in at the school, but it’s obvious that they will need some extra help and attention at a place like a birthday party.

What I expect, and this is probably where I am going wrong, is that their parents would understand this and do something as simple as… stick around. You know, go to the party and be there with their child to help out should a meltdown occur, to say to me “oh, don’t do that because my child doesn’t like that” or “my child can’t eat that”…  stuff like that. I don’t mind changing things up on the fly, I’m an autism parent too!

But they don’t do that. They leave.

And to be fair, I’m not talking about the parents who honestly and truly have something they need to do, like work. But the ones who see it as a break…. a chance to be free.

It’s not a chance to be free. It’s a chance to learn valuable socialization skills. It’s a chance to do something that many other children with autism can not. And this parent is taking it for granted. They’re taking advantage of it.

What to do?

So at my son’s next birthday party, I have a choice to make.

Do I invite that child even though I know that things could be… well, let’s just say, more of a struggle?

Should the child miss out because of their parent? Should the child be punished? Or, would it be more of a punishment to actually invite the child to a place that he/she won’t be able to cope with? I mean, if I don’t invite the child, the child stays home with their parents, where they’re comfortable and at ease, right?

I’m not really sure what the right answer is… all I know is that it would be so much easier if the parent just took it more seriously. If the parent would see it for what it is.

To those parents:

Don’t make me have to choose whether or not to invite your child just because you can’t be bothered to stick around.

Birthday parties aren’t the same for you or I, compared to “other parents”. Not for the person throwing the party nor for the parent of the child that is invited.

I’m sorry that it’s not happy, fun, break time for you like it is for other parents. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a really great time.

You need to step up.

About Stuart Duncan

My name is Stuart Duncan, creator of My oldest son (Cameron) has Autism while my younger son (Tyler) does not. I am a work from home web developer with a background in radio. I do my very best to stay educated and do what ever is necessary to ensure my children have the tools they need to thrive. I share my stories and experiences in an effort to further grow and strengthen the online Autism community and to promote Autism Understanding and Acceptance.

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18 Responses to Birthday parties, autistics, parents and choices

  1. Tisha February 9, 2012 at 9:31 am #

    I would invite with a note on the invitation that the parents need to stay as well. This puts the ball in the parent’s court to decide if they want their child to attend or not.

  2. Kelly February 9, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    Perfect article for today as it is my son Ryan’s birthday today.

  3. Jennifer February 9, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    I was taught that RSVP mean’s “please respond” in French. I was taught to let someone know if you are going to come or can’t come. Not responding is rude. Perhaps other parents need to be taught this social niceity.

  4. chantal Sicile-Kira February 9, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    I agree – people should be asked to RSVP that they will stay with their child.

    My son never liked birthday parties, only I didn’t know till he was able to type.

  5. Victoria February 9, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Put in the invitation very visibly that “parent support to their children required please” you can even make a note before that say “we are all parents of kids with autism and want everyone to have the support they need so that everyone can enjoy Timmy’s birthday party”. Parents have to understand and if they don’t they won’t come. The message is made and no one is in the dark about what you expect.

  6. Mary February 9, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    I completely agree with your post. sticking around could be used to just have fun with your child.or even teach outright asking the parents to stay an option for you?

  7. Garcia Family February 9, 2012 at 10:59 am #

    As a parent of two “regular kids” I’m sorry that your children do not get invited. That is not the case when we have parties, everyone in the class is an equal and my boys understand that, and agree with that, everyone is invited. Also, when my guys attend parties, my husband and I stay at the party. Kinda seems like common sense.

  8. Stuart Duncan February 9, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Thanks everyone. I’ve thought of having the invites say that the parent has to stick around but then that means everyone, not just some parents in particular.

    Which means that if the parents truly have some place to be and their child is more than capable of handling a birthday party, it’s not really fair to them. Their child might miss out.

    I could ask those parents specifically but I see them so rarely as they don’t attend many of those “special” occasions such as assemblies or support groups. Plus, I’d feel quite.. uhm… awkward.

    It would just be so much more simple if people just did what they were supposed to. But then, that’s true of just about every situation everywhere.

  9. Jeff Stimpson February 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Love the parents staying — it opens eyes for all and can help kids understand those with special needs. Whole article was great! Let’s do one on family get-togethers, too. They were a nightmare for us until we got Alex his iPad.

  10. Clara February 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    As the parent of a child “with little verbal ability,” I have to take issue not so much with your post, but with your response, above. Honestly, you are beginning to sound like you just don’t want “the ones that easily meltdown, easily get aggressive, have little verbal ability” around. Nothing like a low-functioning kid to really bring a party down.
    The fact that you so easily go to “oh yeah, but the parents of the okay kids shouldn’t have to stay, just parents of those…other…ones…” makes me wonder if you’re really looking for an answer to your question.
    In my community of friends, we all stay at birthday parties. My son has friends who are “high functioning,” and friends who are neuro-typical. There never seems to be a problem with at least one parent (or older sibling, care-giver, etc.) hanging around for a few hours.
    I think, if you actually want all of your son’s classmates to share his birthday with him, you’ll stop using this excuse and just invite them, parents and all.
    You might also want to think about whether it makes you feel better (by osmosis, as you say) that there are kids who are less able (more disabled) than your son. It’s nice to have a moment of feeling just like the typical parents, isn’t it?

  11. Stuart Duncan February 9, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    That’s not what I’m saying at all Clara. I just simply don’t know what may or may not trigger a strong reaction. I don’t know what is or is not allowed for them to eat. These and other things are important to know with some children more than others.

    All children can be set off on meltdowns, tantrums or even “diva” drama episodes but obviously, as is the case with autism, some children are simply more prone than others. In these cases, my wish is that the parents would be there to help things go as smoothly as possible. Not for my sake, not even for my own son’s sake but for their child’s sake.

    Birthday parties are not something to be taken for granted. I really believe that, now more than ever, and I do invite any and every child that my son wants at his party.

    Whether or not I “sound like” I don’t want them there, the fact is that I do. I just want everyone to have a good time. And no other parent, therapist, doctor, “expert” in the world can make that happen for a child better than their own parent. And it’s for that reason that I’d wish for their parents to just want to be there, rather than have me have to ask them to.

  12. Clara February 9, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    Okay. I’ll take you at your word. But if it comes down to, “I wish people would just know better,” then I guess you must be disappointed a lot. I agree, people should have perfect manners, should be more aware of their parenting responsibilities, and should generally be better at knowing others’ expectations of them. But, unfortunately, they usually are not. (I would like to add that when I brought up the older siblings or other caregivers helping out, that was to let the parent who you didn’t think needed to be there off the hook…though I personally don’t see why they all shouldn’t be there. Even typical kids have bad days.)

  13. rachael joules February 10, 2012 at 10:36 am #

    Im very shocked to read that the parents of the children with the more complex needs dont stick around, when i got halfway through the paragraph about whether or not to invite these children i started to get a little offended as you were describing my son, however when i read the point you were making i was shocked, Ill be honest here,Personally if my son was invited to a birthday party, I WOULD NOT leave him in your care! no offense to you but u have a birthday party and your own son to care for,
    My son and most others with the more severe needs need 1-1 (or close to 1-1) and there is no way you should be expected to look after these children for the safety of your own child, everyone else’s child and the more complex needs children like my son. Maybe when inviting these children u should ask the parents to stay “as you cannot take responsibility for the safety of their children”

  14. Julie February 10, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    My daughter is 13 and has autism. Either my husband or I have been to EVERY party she has ever been invited to. I wouldn’t in a million years think of just dropping her off and leaving. I know that she needs extra support and it is not the responsibility of the parent’s of the birthday child to make sure she is ok.

    After 10 years of being a parent in the special needs community as well as being a former elementary school nurse, I am no longer surprised by anything that parents do. I have literally seen it all! I learned long ago that just because I wouldn’t do something doesn’t mean that other parents wouldn’t.

    When we have had birthday parties in the past I have had parents (with kids w/special needs) ask whether they could drop of their kids. I have said before that if their child will need extra support, someone needs to stay w/him or her.

    I didn’t get the feeling at all that you didn’t want kids that functioned at a lower level at the party b/c they might “bring the party down” (as someone else commented) It was my understanding that you debated on whether or not to invite them b/c of lack of support (that you have witnessed in the past) from their parents. I understand that! Your focus at a birthday party for your son, should be on YOUR son, not on everyone else’s child.

    We are actually attending a birthday party tomorrow for a boy that used to be in my daughter’s class at school. I will be staying at the party! I want to make sure that it is a great experience, not only for my daughter, but for the birthday boy as well!

    Blessings to you Stuart!

  15. Jennifer Leblanc February 10, 2012 at 2:22 pm #

    As one of the parents who has attended these birthday parties, I am confused as to where this is all coming from. To say that some parents don’t get it or that they are leaving their child at the party so that they can get a break is way out of line. I can’t recall one incidence of this happening to the parties I have attended or others that I’ve known about. And there really haven’t been that many parties. I can also say that the parents of the children that easily meltdown, easily get aggressive, or have little verbal ability do in fact stay at the party.
    The birthday photo on this post is of the last birthday party that just took place on Feb. 5, so I will use this as an example. There were 14 children there, some on the spectrum and some not. One set of parents asked the Mom hosting the party if it would be alright if they left because their son did not want them to stay (he is not on the spectrum, has no behaviour issues etc. and just wanted to feel like a “big boy” and not have his parents hanging around). They asked first and the hostess decided it was alright. Another mom of 2 of the children (not on the spectrum and also live next door to them and know them well) didn’t stay also. The rest of the parents stayed. They weren’t asked to stay, they just did. We enjoy staying because it gives us a chance to socialize and get to know each other as well.
    The party was a huge success, everyone had a great time and got along so well that one of the new moms asked me to point out who was on the spectrum and who was not-she couldn’t tell. I told her how amazing it was that you really couldn’t tell, because really, autism or no autism, they are just a bunch of kids having a blast at their friends party.
    It’s unfortunate that this post has painted things in such a bad light, but I needed to “step up”.

  16. Stuart Duncan February 10, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Jennifer, the photo in this post is not reflective of the message in the post. It’s just a birthday party photo and lends something visual.

    What I’m referring to, it’s actually a generalization of what I’ve witnessed over time, but more specifically did happen a couple of years ago.

    I’m sorry if you think this post is a commentary to the party in the photo. It’s most definitely not.

    The party in the photo was actually truly remarkable in that everything went perfect! No meltdowns, no fights, no negatives what so ever. It was quite amazing!

  17. Jennifer Leblanc February 10, 2012 at 4:08 pm #

    Whatever the intention was of this post, you did paint it as current and commonplace. I did not think you were discussing the party photo that is displayed, I was merely using it as an example of what does in fact go on. The photo isn’t in question, the post is. If this post stems from something that happened a couple of years ago, then it should have said it was more of an isolated incident. The impression you are giving people is that it is more than that. That this is how things are and this is how some parents are and how will you deal with it and “those parents”. Our kids (meaning all the kids from the autism classes) all go to school together, we (the parents) see each other quite often at the school and these parties and I don’t know anyone I could put in the “those parents” category. I think this was very misleading to those who don’t really know us.

  18. Stuart Duncan February 10, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    Ah but this post is in general, as I’m not the only parent to have witnessed this. There very much are parents out there that do this (and some that do much worse but those are for other blog posts).

    This blog is read by parents worldwide and is not a reflection on any one school as most people wouldn’t know what I’m talking about or who or where.

    The fact that it has been a concern for me in the past, the fact that I’ve discussed this with other parents before and the fact that someone else had brought it up recently is what prompted this post now.

    The sad fact that this is how things are, not with every parent, not even a large percentage but certainly with some. There are some people out there who don’t get it. There are others who abandon their children and families completely. There are even some, unfortunately as we see in the news, that take the lives of their children.

    It’s the harsh reality of it all. But for right now, I’m simply talking about something that was on my mind previously and again recently and so I thought it would make for a good blog post.

    I wish that I too could say that I haven’t met a parent that would do this but I have. Others have.

    I’m sorry if you take this personally and I certainly understand if you disagree. I feel I’ve said all I can say on this though.

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