This is the story of three parties and what we learned from them.
The First Party
He went to the birthday party of a friend from school with 10 or so boys. He said he wanted me to drop him off, instead of me staying there, even though he had never been to the house before. I was quietly proud of his bravery.
The first call we received was that he jumped off a retaining wall and hurt his foot. His dad and I drove over because we knew that if we didn’t, he would be concerned about our not being there and if we went, we would look at his foot, tell him it was OK, and he could go on.
His foot appeared fine, we oversaw him putting ice on it, and we left again.
The second call we received was because he got hit in the face during rough-housing with the other boys. As an only child he was not used to that kind of physical play with other children, and I think it frightened him a little. I decided to stay at the party.
We moved into the present-opening phase, and the noise of the excited boys really bothered him, but he did not want to go.
When it was time to leave, he started kicking and hitting things in the backyard. He said that the boys did not like him, did not want to play with him, and he was angry.
I had been there for a while and did not see any signs that the boys did not like my son or that they did not want to play with him.
In truth, they were all running around enjoying themselves, and there was no really structured play going on. He did not realize that and it hurt him to feel disconnected from the play.
I think the pain in his foot, the shock of being hit in the face (even accidentally), and the stimulus from the noise and activity, culminated in a meltdown. I tried to get him in my car and could not, and I called my husband for help.
Then I sat on the curb and restrained my son, talking quietly to him, while he writhed against me and scratched at my wrists and legs.
Yes, people saw my son melting down and me wrestling with him on the curb next to my car. Did I care? Nope. If they understand they don’t judge and if they judge they don’t understand. Either way, it did not matter to me.
A woman came out of the house and I asked her if she could get us some juice. Juice could be a wonderful tool for getting my son out of meltdowns, and I had not thought to bring some with me.
I think it is the sensory stimulus of the feel of the liquid and the coldness, and the smell and taste of the sweetness, which kind of re-sets his brain from the meltdown back to where he can be reasoned with. Like someone snapping their fingers out of the corner of your eye, your attention gets shifted and you turn your head to look.
His dad showed up just as the juice arrived and we gently got some into his mouth. Within a minute, he was breathing more slowly, slack in my arms.
I asked if he was OK and he said “no” but he was not fighting anymore. I got him in the car while his dad went into the house to find my purse and our son’s glasses.
While we were waiting we started talking about how it was sometimes hard for him to read people’s facial expressions, and to see that these boys actually did like him and wanted to play with him.
As if to prove my point, one of the boys knocked on the window and as I rolled it down, he said good-bye to my son
“See you on Monday!”
I was so grateful to that boy. He was an identical twin and I was not sure which twin knocked on my window, so beamed my gratitude at both of them every time I saw them.
The Second Party
We took some lessons away from that party.
First was that we needed to better prepare our son for the rambunctious chaos that children can create when they are having fun.
The second lesson was to prepare him for common behavior – children pushing, children yelling, children getting really excited and animated – and what he should do in response.
The third was that we probably need to wait a while before we left him at a party, until we were more certain that he had his coping skills ingrained.
The next party he was invited to was at a local arcade. We were concerned that the lights and sounds, as well as the natural energy of a party, would be overwhelming.
There was also going to be laser tag, which took place in the dark with flashing lights, which could trigger anxiety and overload.
We wanted him to be able to enjoy the experience, so our preparation took place in three steps.
First we took him to the arcade a week before the party so that he would be familiar with the environment. We walked him through it on a Sunday afternoon, when it was less crowded, and talked about the sounds, lights flashing, and a lot of people moving around.
Then we went into the laser tag room so he could see what the environment was like. We were grateful to the staff for being so accommodating to us.
The second step took place on the day of the party. Before we left, I walked him through some likely scenarios and what he should do:
- If he started getting overwhelmed? Find Mom or Dad for some quiet time outside.
- If another child wouldn’t give up a game that he wanted to play? Take 5 deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, walk away and come back to the game later.
- If a child pushed him away from the game he was playing? Take 5 deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, and find Mom or Dad to help.
The third step was that his dad went with him into the laser tag room, not only to help him manage his anxiety and potential sensory overload, but also to have some fun father-son time.
I had a juice box in my purse, just in case.
The Third Party
The lesson learned from this party was not of steps needed to assist our son in doing what he wants to do.
It was a more simple lesson, one of love and friendship.
We were invited to a friend’s 50th birthday party. It was to be a large event with both children and adults attending.
This friend, knowing of our son’s diagnosis and some of the challenges he experienced, sent me an email with details about the party, including how many children were expected, their names, and ages, etc., so that I could prepare him for a potentially high-stimulus environment.
There are no words to convey how deeply touched I was by this kindness, this simple act of love and friendship.
The lesson for me was this:
Let your friends help you. Let them know what you need and let them give it to you. Then value and honor them because they are a blessing to you.