“Has he been invited to any birthday parties?” asks the psychologist. I am in the assessment room with our 3.5 year old. The psychologist is young, working for an Aspergers clinic with an excellent reputation. Her assessment is thorough.
“No, he’s only three. Do kindy kids invite each other to birthday parties? We usually only invite family friends to ours.” My voice is confident but truthfully, I’m starting to crumble. I’m thinking about his kindergarten, remembering bright little slips of paper in other children’s pigeon-holes. Parents chatting with ease in the kindergarten foyer. There has been nothing colourful in our pigeon-hole, and no chatting with parents for me. Arrivals and departures are stressful, and the moments of conversation I can manage are worried words with teachers, tinged with frustration at both ends. I hadn’t even wondered whether there were playdates and parties being organised around us. Not until now.
“Well at kindergarten, children typically make friends and they often invite those kindy friends to their birthday parties.” The psychologist delivers her news about our friend-less, probably autistic child with the same gentle, reassuring voice she has used all the way through the assessment.
I’m crying. I’m trapped in this little room with the psychologist with her nice voice and nice shoes and nice questions and now I’m crying. I don’t know where to look. I look down at my son.
He’s lying down, with his little belly and cheek pressed to the beige carpet. His eyes are lined up with the wheels of a Thomas train that he’s holding in his little hand. He’s pushing it around the floor carefully, whispering lines from his favourite Thomas scenes, “Well, bust my buffers. Goodbye little James. You’ve been a very useful little engine.”
“Do you want to do anything for your birthday this week?” I ask my 5 year old. He’s playing with his lego ninjago figurines, pacing back and forth, moving pieces around the lego table, getting the scene just right. I feel bad for interrupting him.
“No party,” he says. Then returns to his lego. “A ninja never quits,” I hear him say with a perfect American accent. I think he’s spectacular. His hair is long and a mess of curls. He doesn’t go to school, so there’s been no pressure to conform with gender norms or even to wash and brush it, both of which he hates.
“Actually, I would like a ninjago cake. Maybe Nana and Granddad can come over, but nobody else”
We talk through the details of the cake, I make sure we get it just right so that I can tell my friend who will make it for us. He’s jumping up and down with excitement. Talking quickly. He’s animated. I am relieved. I just found out I am autistic too. Birthday parties aren’t my thing.
Our house is filled with people. About 40 adults and children. They’re in various corners, so it doesn’t feel like there’s so many people. My family are on the deck catching the winter sun, little children are pushing trucks and trains around, someone is helping the kids blow bubbles, and there’s a few older children on iPads gaming together. There are minecraft pictures everywhere.
When it’s cake time, my son asks us to tell people they don’t have to gather to see his cake, but they can if they want to. With his friends and his cousins standing around his minecraft cake, he says, “There will be no singing. Thank you for coming”.
As my wife cuts the cake, I look around at the family and friends celebrating my son’s birth day with us. Good people. Lots of autistic parents and kids; some who are not. Since leaving behind school and early intervention therapy systems, we’ve slowly found our community. Minecraft is Queen right now and our wild and free children spend their days gaming and occasionally running outside to bounce on the trampoline or climb a tree. They say, “I love you” and hug each other tightly. They don’t always get along, but they always figure it out. My son is understood and loved.
Even though I don’t like birthday parties, I’m feeling pretty joyful right now.
I feel myself pulled out of the present moment, away from the children standing around the cake, away from friends and family.
I’m taken back to a small room with a little boy lying on the floor, his belly and cheek pressed in to the carpet, a train in his hands. A woman with nice shoes and a nice voice asks, “Has he been invited to any birthday parties?”