Today, Friday November 20th, 2020, is my 19th birthday. This doesn’t feel right to me honestly, there’s no way that I’m only a year away from turning 20. I said this last year too when I turned 18, there’s no way I’m an “adult” now. I feel exactly the same way as I did when I was 14, albeit a little bit smarter and a little bit more grounded in the crazy world. I still feel like a kid, but I guess that’s pretty normal for people my age.
On my birthday, I want to write just a little bit about expectations that the world has for people on their birthdays, in particular children and teens. There are birthday traditions: you have to have a birthday party, you have to have a cake, you have to open presents in front of everyone else, etc. For autistic people, these expectations and traditions can be very overwhelming, and yet often they are pushed on us by our loved ones not because they are what we want or enjoy, but because of the expectations that those around us have about what a birthday is supposed to look like.
This applies not just for birthdays, but for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas as well, and I will definitely be writing more on this topic soon as the holiday season comes up, so stay tuned if you are interested in this subject. But very often you’ll see parents trying to throw their autistic kids a big party in which their child is very obviously overwhelmed and stressed out and probably never asked for or wanted a party to begin with, but the party happened because of the expectation that kids have birthday parties. (And nobody should be having parties right now anyway, but I write this in anticipation of a post-pandemic future in which parties will once again be in the purview). This can happen with autistic adults as well, in which someone is pressured by their friends or family into having a birthday dinner at a crowded, loud, overwhelming bar or restaurant complete with cake and singing where the person whose birthday it is ends up overwhelmed and shutting down rather than having fun.
And then there’s the trouble with traditional birthday rituals, if you will. Some people may not want to be sung to, for sensory reasons or simply because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Similarly, not everyone enjoys cake! And for many autistic people, opening presents can be more stressful than it is exciting, especially if others around them expect them to do things such as open presents in front of everyone else, open presents all in one sitting, open presents in some particular way, read aloud a card before getting to the gift, or show the “appropriate” facial expressions and vocal tone when receiving a gift. For various reasons, the social, sensory, and executive functioning aspects of such rituals can make them very stressful for an autistic person.
I could write much more on these topics and different ways that accommodations could be made so that such events would be more fun for everybody, and that post will be coming soon, but for now I just want to encourage the family and friends of autistic people to actually take into account the wishes and desires of the autistic person you are celebrating rather than trying to force your own expectations or traditions. Ask the autistic person in question what they envision for their birthday, or if that’s not possible at least don’t do anything that you’re pretty sure will make the autistic person upset. Remember, it’s their special day and so it should be centered on their comfort and happiness rather than your own expectations.
I’ve never enjoyed having huge parties, and I haven’t had one since I was very little when my mom would try to throw birthday parties and invite lots of people from the preschool over (and apparently I would typically wander off by myself anyway, the reason for which should be obvious by now). I enjoy spending time with one, or maybe two if I’m feeling really adventurous, close friends on my birthday, and to be quite honest I really don’t like cake all that much. If I were expected to open presents in front of a huge crowd of people, especially if I were for some reason expected to adhere to some social ritual that I have never heard of or have any idea how to navigate and make my body do things that are not natural for it, I could easily see myself having a panic attack. Other people might be overwhelmed by all that goes on during their birthday, and so activities and presents may need to be spaced out and other accommodations made.
Alright, I’ll step off my soap box now. Here’s to many more happy birthdays, for myself and all my readers out there!