Birthday parties, anticipated with great excitement by neuro-typical children, are something parents of autistic children often dread. Many autistic kids have sensory issues, which cause them to crash when they are over or under stimulated. Emma has both and it’s impossible to predict what might trigger her. Crashing for Emma can mean perseverating on some seemingly insignificant thing – a missing photograph, a stick she picked up and by mistake dropped, a portion of packing tape, a magazine no one knew she cared about that was inadvertently thrown away. These are the things she uses to calm herself and there’s nothing like a party to trigger the desire for items used for self-soothing suddenly and without warning. In the past we have witnessed all of the above as well as her wanting something we cannot understand and therefore cannot help her find, which leads to crying or worse, a full melt down. When in the later mode, we must physically remove her from wherever we are and get her home as expeditiously as possible, something onlookers find baffling and frightening.
A few years ago Emma was invited to a little girl’s birthday “Tea Party”, which took place in the Rose Club of the Plaza Hotel. Red velvet banquets and gold gilded chairs with couples speaking in hushed tones made me inwardly groan, when we arrived. How was I going to keep Emma occupied? What if she was disruptive, unable to sit still? When the menu was delivered I barely went through the motions of opening it – what was the point? I knew she wouldn’t eat anything from the menu. I had the foresight to bring food I knew she’d eat and just hoped the service was quick, given there were eight little girls with a variety of disabilities attending. My memory of that party is of running after Emma and trying my best to keep her from jumping on the beautifully upholstered furniture or sliding down the marble banister, Mary Poppins style, while avoiding the glares of the hotel staff.
The only other party to rival that one was when Emma turned four. Given Emma’s love of music, we hired a musician to come to our apartment. We invited a number of children from her special education preschool as well as some neuro-typical children Emma and her older brother, Nic had known since they were babies. Emma spent most of the party attempting to lie down inside of the musician’s guitar case as the other children danced, ran around or sat politely listening to the music and singing along when appropriate. My husband, Richard and I took turns excusing ourselves and each went separately into our bathroom where we allowed ourselves a few minutes to cry, before mustering up the strength to return to our guests, doing our best to act as though everything was fine.
That was also the year we had been called into a parent/teacher conference at her special education preschool only to be told our daughter’s development was a “red flag” and that she had “flat-lined”. It was a tough year. A year Richard and I still refer to when we feel doubtful of Emma’s current progress. That year marked a time of desperation, sadness and a general feeling of impotence on our part. It seemed whatever therapy we tried, whatever medical interventions we took on, nothing made a difference.
Emma’s most successful birthday parties have been when we’ve rented a gym, as we did a few months ago for her 9th birthday (we’re learning) or when we’ve planned the party in some other equally active place. This past birthday, we rented a gym for her birthday party and the following day took her and Nic to Bounce U in Brooklyn where she ran into a friend from her special education school and everyone had a blast.
Emma at Bounce U
For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism go to: www.EmmasHopeBook.com