Our youngest son is nervous about birthdays, particularly his own. Bright, crinkling, ripping paper, and the unknown surprise within. Loved ones loudly singing happy birthday in unison. Iced cakes with smoky candles. Being the centre of everyone’s attention. For a child with sensory autism, even happy events can be a little too much.
For the first few years of trying to understand our two autistic sons, I tried hard to gently introduce traditional birthday elements. Eventually, I paired everything back and asked myself: what is a birthday?
The cake with the candles is a sweet treat that commemorates the years. So my son and I bake cupcakes together. We whisper “you are eight today” softly in his ear and hold him close.
Then there are parties. They show that people care and want to celebrate with you. So we invite his grandparents over, who are very understanding and know to be gentle with him.
Then we take our son to the top of a hill for his “party.” The breeze up here is so exhilarating that all sound is cancelled out. It acts like white noise. Our son removes his hands from his ears and relaxes.
Then there are birthday presents. We know we want to give our children the gift of our time over a huge pile of toys. We also try and keep our house as minimal as possible, to make it a comfortable and safe place for our younger sons and baby daughter. It is a birthday though, and we do want to give something he might really want, something very special.
At the top of the hill, one of his favourite places because of the gales and the height, we give him his present. It is not wrapped in bright paper. It is enclosed in a small, dark, waterproof toggle bag.
Inside is a tiny pocket kite.
Although our youngest son has never flown a kite before, he knows straight away what it is and a giant smile is brightening his whole face. I have picked a kite that has only one string, so that it will be easy for him to learn to fly it. It has no frame, so will float about with the slightest breeze, but will never crash heavily to the ground. It has a very long tail, as one thing our son really does love is to run around with streamers and ribbons.
Whilst he and my husband practise flying the kite, our other children run around shouting encouragement. If it falls to the ground, they speed over to launch it back into the air within seconds.
Our son is usually non-verbal but he is calling “Kite! Kite!” and we reply “Yes! Your birthday kite!”
Whilst our eldest son takes the birthday boy for a spot of rock climbing, our third son tries out the kite too…
… and of course, our 18 month old daughter is equally keen.
We christen the kite “the rainbow flier” after a plane we built out of cardboard boxes when our eldest boys were toddlers. Our second son had named it, after the use of every crayon they owned to decorate it, and they kept it for a long time until it fell apart.
I now know that I want every family birthday to be as mindful and unique as this one. The traditional trappings are only there as a set-piece to help make the day special – and maybe they should be more of a starting point than all-encompassing.
Our son is back playing with his kite as the sun sets. His best birthday yet.