Autism mum’s birthday party disaster
In my head, it was going to be a perfect day.
Having been an autism mum for almost three years (Giovanni, 10, had only been officially diagnosed three years ago), I’d finally learned all the lessons.
It was his birthday, and with the memories of failed birthday parties past still haunting me, I’d only invited four of his friends to celebrate with us.
When you have a child with autism, small groups are key.
Read more: Everything you’ve always wanted to ask someone with autism
I’d called the venue ahead to explain my son had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and so we wouldn’t be singing Happy Birthday to him and would be keeping guests, noise and activity to a minimum.
Giovanni and I had talked at length about how he wanted to celebrate the day.
He chose a pool party at our local swimming centre. We go there all the time and he loves it. Done.
He asked for hot chips and sausage rolls. Not healthy but also, done.
He wanted me to make the cupcakes he liked with blue icing. Also, done.
I made sure to keep the day casual, giving him plenty of time to relax. I’d booked the party for 3pm so there was no rush to get anywhere.
We made our way to the swimming centre early so we’d be the first to arrive. I’ve learned it’s best for Giovanni if we arrive at events early before anyone else, to give him time to adjust.
He and his brother and sister jumped straight in the pool for a play while I ran around ensuring the party hosts knew he had autism and may or may not participate in the games.
In this episode of Honey Mums Mel and Kel talk about birthday party disasters and chat to Nine financial journalist Ross Greenwood:
“Just let him do whatever he wants to do,” I said. “The other kids will participate, but he may not. Don’t force him.”
They nodded solemnly and I truly felt we were in good hands. I sat back with a coffee, sipping on it smugly, already congratulating myself on a job well done.
It had taken some time but I was now officially THE BEST autism mum IN THE WORLD!
I even imagined writing this article, explaining to other autism families everything I had learned.
I’d share all of my wisdom, and receive all of the praise.
“Thank you so much for this article Jo. You are such a good autism mum. I’m going to follow all of your advice.”
Because it was a complete and total disaster.
Complete. And. Total. Disaster.
The first 15 minutes were fine and as our handful of guests arrived Giovanni happily played with them, swimming and splashing around and playing games.
He ignored every single grown up who dared to say, “Happy Birthday” to him and showed no interest in the gifts being presented to him.
At one stage a family friend wished him a “Happy Birthday” and held out a gift to him. Giovanni said loudly, “You can just go,” and turned back to play.
I gave her an apologetic shrug and she gave me one back to let me know she wasn’t offended.
Still, it was going pretty well, with my only care that Giovanni was enjoying his birthday party. I didn’t care about anyone else.
I was just about to grab a celebratory Splice ice-cream when I noticed Giovanni doing this:
This is what his Occupational Therapist (OT) and I refer to as the ‘shutdown’.
When Giovanni isn’t coping with something, this is what he does. He literally shuts down like a little robot and it’s almost impossible to snap him out of it.
My heart broke, my stomach sank and I began to panic.
No, no, no, no, no, not again. Not this time.
Instead of crowding him, I asked my older son Philip, 13, to go to Giovanni and try and figure out what was going on.
Philip is the only one who seems to be able to get through to him when he is like this. I call him the ‘Giovanni whisperer’.
Nope. No luck.
So I kicked off my shoes and walked into the water, to try and figure out what was going on.
Not a word. No movement. No acknowledgement that I was even there.
I knew my only hope of salvaging the day was to get Giovanni out of the pool and taking him for a walk for a private chat.
It took almost 20 minutes to get him to move but he eventually took my hand and I led him outside for a talk.
“Darling, what happened?”
“Did someone upset you,” I asked.
More silence as he quietly wiped away falling tears.
I decided to try sitting in silence, hoping he’d eventually open up and tell me what was happening.
It worked, around 15 minutes later.
“I just don’t know how to explain it,” he said.
“Just try darling.”
“I’m just so confused,” he eventually said.
“By what? By the game?”
“It’s too hard to explain,” he said, before putting his head down again and rocking back and forth.
We sat there for almost two hours. Each time I glanced back at the party, everyone was having fun.
Everyone except for Giovanni.
What a birthday.
“I just want to go home,” he said.
“Let’s just eat, and then we can go,” I said, grabbing his hand once again to lead him over to all of the Giovanni-approved foods I’d painstakingly organised for him.
I sat him at the head of the table and he pushed over the chair next to him, then threw a bottle of water across the room.
I quietly picked up the chair and the bottle and put a cupcake in front of him.
He began to eat it, then another, and then another.
I hovered, not wanting to intrude on my now peaceful child.
Then, he began to cry again.
“What is it,” I asked him, my arms around him.
“I missed my party. I missed all the fun!” Then, even louder, “Today sucked!’
I lead him away from the group, again, for one last ditch effort to salvage the day for him.
“Giovanni, you are in control of this. You can choose what to do next. You can either be sad and we can go home, or you can jump into the pool now and have some fun.”
“I just don’t know what to do,” he shrieked.
“I know you feel confused. I know you don’t know what to do. So just listen to me. Trust me. Just jump in. Once you jump in you will feel better. I promise.”
I wish I could say he jumped in and all was well, but it took another approximately 28 minutes of me repeating this for him to jump in.
When he did, I did a happy dance at the side of the pool for all to see.
Regardless of how much his birthday party had “sucked” how much he had cried and how “confused” he’d been due to my complete and utter failure as an autism mum, we’d at least end on a high note.
I took to my special needs parents Facebook page later that day and shared my story.
My friend Kelly said it best.
“Why did you have a party. My son with autism hates parties.”
I said, “But he said he wanted one!”
And she said,” He doesn’t know what he wants or what he can handle. That’s your job.”
So next year, no party. Maybe just pizza at home.
Lesson finally learned.
If you would like to share your story email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.