My son's 1st birthday was a grand affair for us...magicians, balloon makers, face painting, clowns, mascots--the whole nine yards. Then on we celebrated each of his birthday with just as much enthusiasm, expecting that very soon our son would be dictating how he wants his birthday to be celebrated. Well, autism changed that plan a little. Over time, we realized he had no clue what birthday is, what parties are, or what it feels like to get gifts--he never even asked for one or showed interest in ones he received. He seemed aloof in his own birthday party, as if he was standing among aliens, not having a clue of what was happening. It was then we realized that we don't have to follow the crowd and do what is expected on birthdays. We instead decided to do what we knew for sure our son would enjoy any day of the week and just give him an overdose of that experience on his special day. So, as a ritual, we now book a night at an indoor water park and let him have a field day. He loves it.
Though this took care of the anxiety of his birthday, there was still the social gatherings that we had to deal with -- BBQ parties, birthdays of other kids, Christmas, Halloween parties and so many more. Although we wanted to be part of the fun, the pressure of being there with Vedant was too much. He would cry, try to escape, try dragging us to the car, have accidents, withdraw himself in a corner or sometimes get too excited and get physical with other guests. Our knee jerk reaction was to stop going to any of these. I started with giving excuses for not attending and soon ran out of any more excuses. It was then I decided that hiding away was not a solution. If Vedant has to survive in this world, he needs to learn to cope and we have to help him do that. Over time my husband and I have unconsciously and with some planning come up with a less stressful way of dealing with this problem. Some of the things we do for a "successful" (it can mean different things for different people) day at a social gathering are:
This was the biggest change we made. That our son lacks social skills was not news to us. We had to understand that going to a party was more of a social experiment for us than a fun exercise. We could not go into a party expecting that our son would sit down with other kids and play a board game or run around playing tag. We had to accept that it's going to be tough on him being around so many people and so much noise and that it's going to be some work for us to keep him calm. When this expectation changed, we knew what we were getting into. We complained less because we knew that this was more of a learning experience for our son than an unwinding opportunity for us. Harsh, but practical.
Define a baseline:
This was the 2nd most important thing we needed to agree upon. Although we knew that our son was going to be uncomfortable and probably not really have as much fun as other kids, we still needed to define how much is too much for him. Some parties can get real noisy, some can be relatively laid back. We had to know when it was time for us to thank the host and leave. We needed to ensure that the experience was tolerable, if not enjoyable, for our son so that he is not anxious next time he was in a social situation.
First in last out is not important:
: I made it a point to inform the host everytime that we would be coming in late and leaving early. This served 2 purposes-- first, it minimized the stress for all of us because the duration was short and second, it gave our son the opportunity to be at a fun event but not get overwhelmed by it. We try to leave before it gets too much for him. As he gets used to being in situations like these, we can slowly start to stay back longer and enjoy more.
To avoid all the sensory overload, Vedant had tried to escape on several occasions. Being in an unfamiliar place, caused him to have accidents and his PICA would come rearing in stronger when he was left unattended. So, my husband and I decided to split time. While I spent the 1st 15 minutes keeping an eye on him, he could hang around with his friends and then we switched roles...like police patrol. This strategy has worked really well for us. This way, we are able to catch up with our friends and also not let our son feel insecure or unattended. One of us is always with him or watching over him.
Participating is not mandatory:
My son never showed interest in his own birthday, why would he be excited about someone else's? I stopped dragging him around the birthday cake, forcing him to sing, clap, and pose for pictures. It was such a relief. Previously, I would try to push him to do that because that's what kids do. We both ended up being upset. Now, when I stopped, I noticed he gets excited watching other kids and sometimes claps on his own. He is more invested when it's not imposed on him. Same for party games. I know he hates getting his face painted, or being inside a bouncy castle so I don't push him any more. I encourage him, I want him to experience and try something new, but not by making him uncomfortable. I would rather have him leave the place feeling happy and relaxed than upset and stressed.
Parties can be stressful when you have a lot of unfamiliar people to deal with. I still generally avoid parties if I know that there will be a lot of new faces. Such occasions generally mean the guests won’t know about my son's diagnosis and that's a conversation I tend not to have all the time, especially not on occasions when people have gathered to have some fun. However, when I do find myself and my son standing next to stranger staring down at him out of curiosity or judgement, I would rather introduce myself and tell them about my son. This levels the playing field. Now we both know and so the heaviness lifts off of my head and I can breathe again while they ruminate over the new information. Being open about Vedant's Autism has been one of the best decisions I've made on and off parties.
I know for a fact that a sensory toy can keep my son calm for a while so I carry one with me. This keeps Vedant engaged and more in control and it buys me some more time. Whatever sensory diet I can think of, I offer him that every now and then- a tight hug, a swirl or two, tickles, some calming music-- they seem to do the trick for a little while as well while he tries to cope in a challenging environment.
Talk about it:
Vedant is not just non-verbal, he also cannot understand conversations. Still, when we go to a social gathering, I make sure I talk to him about it on our way to the venue. I would tell him where we are going, whom we would meet, what's the party about, and what to expect there. I really don't expect him to understand much, though I hope that one day he will but I don't want him to be taken by surprise when we arrive at the party. Even if he can catch bits and pieces of what I told him and make some sense, it's much better than not telling him at all. I'm sure he braces himself for what's coming if he is informed better. I also make it a point to excitedly talk about what all we did at the party once we are back home so that he has good memories of it.
The strategies we use seem to be working well but then there are always days when, like any other kid, he throws us a surprise. Well, who said Autism was easy? It makes you work and work hard at that. It can be fun one day and a challenge most of the days. As long as we keep trying, the journey will be worth the effort. We might fail, but as long as we are not defeated, we will continue to work our way through it and enjoy the party while it lasts.