Why "Kiddie Parties" are no fun for me by SherriPizza • All About Autism Series 2011

This post is generously submitted for the 2011 All About Autism Series ~ by SherriPizza:

I don’t blog and this is my first attempt at a guest blog post. While it may make me sound like a whiny mommy, it’s really an attempt to describe why certain settings are so difficult for my son and me, or how he behaves differently from what’s socially acceptable, what’s considered the norm.

My five year old son has Autism. He is verbal but is very speech delayed, has difficulties with communication, interaction, socialization and attention, has fine and gross motor skills delays, and has sensory processing disorder. He is also an adorable, sweet little boy who loves food, music, watching Sesame Street and Finding Nemo, giving hugs, and me.

Whenever I take my son to a children’s birthday party – whether for a neurotypical child or a special needs child – I am first of all grateful that we were invited at all. My son needs to be prompted in order to greet anyone at the party, and to wish a Happy Birthday to the celebrating child. So I start out by doing just that. But then…

My son does not play interactively with any of the children at the party, nor does he even imitate them and their play. When all the other children participate in an arts and crafts activity, my son has no interest in participating. He runs around aimlessly, or sits on the floor and lines up toy cars and counts them. At a few birthday and holiday parties we attended, even children his age who are also on the autism spectrum sat quietly and did the arts and crafts project, but my son would not, and I could not even get him to do it “hand over hand” with me. He bolts.  My heart sinks as other parents stare at us, and at my ill-fated attempts to try to incorporate him into the group activity and encourage him to participate in it.

My son is only interested in the food. At children’s parties we’ve attended – whether for neurotypical (NT) or special needs (SN) children – and similarly, at concerts for special needs children or religious services for special needs kids that we’ve attended, the snacks are all laid out on a large table: platters of fruit, cheese and crackers, bowls of pretzels or popcorn, cookies, and sometimes even cake. All my son ever wants to do at the party (or concert, or synagogue) is eat the snacks. My son is not fat at all, in fact he is tall for his age and slim, but he is simply much more interested in the food than in the other children, or in the arts & crafts projects, or in any games the other children are playing. All he does, whenever I try to redirect him towards other children or towards an activity, is run towards the food. I have to hold his hand most of the time, and keep him away from the food. I get plenty of food for him and try to keep him sitting calmly and quietly while eating it neatly. But no matter how much food I give him, he wants more. It is because he is very visual: the food is right there in front of him. He sees it.  If I am not holding his hand, he bolts, runs off, touches all the food on the table and touches all the food on strangers’ plates… So it’s a whole lot of fun for me… Apologizing as people stare or remark about my son touching their food… His preschool teachers (special education school, autism class) have tried to teach him not to grab other people’s food, as have I, but it has not quite sunk in yet…

So as the other mothers at the birthday party all stand together, on the side, chatting about various topics, watching their kids (neurotypical or special needs) from afar, I spend the entire time by my son’s side, trying to keep him away from other kids’ plates and from adults’ plates, trying to keep him from grabbing the food on the table, giving him food in semi-moderation, trying to prompt him to interact with others, sitting with him as he “plays” with toys (counts them, really — he counts the cars or blocks, he doesn’t actually “play” with them).

To top it off, if I actually were able to step away from my son for a split second at any of these kiddie parties or events – which I really cannot (and as a divorced single mother of a boy who has autism and whose father lives halfway across the country I’m the only one with him at these parties and events) – I’d feel uncomfortable with the other mothers anyway, as I often overhear them speaking of the expensive private schools for kids with autism to which they will be sending their children next year, and to which I cannot afford to send my son… Some even say aloud that parents who send their kids to the public schools are not good parents, while that is all that I can afford…

But at one recent party, a father of another little boy noted that my son, like his, had no interest in the arts & crafts activity. I jokingly told him that my son prefers the food. He said with a smile: “like most guys!” and I quipped, “Well, like his mommy – he likes food, music, and watching the Yankees.” The dad said: “Two out of three ain’t bad.” So I asked: “Mets fan? Sorry…” – but I digress….

It is incredibly important for me to take my son to children’s birthday and holiday parties, to concerts and other events for children, be it with neurotypical children, other special needs children, or a mix. After all, we are alone much of the time and going to the playground just the two of us is fine but will never teach my son how to socialize with others and function in society.  But each time I take him to a kiddie party, whether with NT or with SN kids, I feel like we are so isolated, like my son functions so much less than the other children there, like my son is interested in nothing else but the cookies, fruit, pizza, cake etc., and like everyone is staring at us… It is exhausting for me to spend the whole time keeping him from touching strangers’ plates; other children get very, very upset when he does touch their food, when I am not fast enough to prevent it…

Yet we keep going – at least when invited – and I wind up near tears every time.  (I should also mention that several old friends with neurotypical children have stopped inviting us altogether, so that nowadays only a few do, and most invitations come from other parents of special needs children.)

I insist on trying to take my son to children’s birthday and holiday parties, concerts for special needs children, religious services for special needs children, and even at those events geared especially for us, everything is such a struggle, everything is exhausting, so that I find myself relieved when we come back home and I turn on the TV to relax and watch some sports. Then, of course, I wind up near tears again, as my son stims while watching Sesame Street, as my son rocks back & forth and mutters to himself and counts to ten or backwards from ten, as I see how difficult it is for my son to engage with the world around him… But I keep trying to engage him… I hug him, we sing songs together (music speaks to him and he loves many rock songs I’ve played for him), I tickle him and my tears turn to laughter.

SherriPizza resides in New York City and is a divorced, single mother of a 5 year old boy who has autism. Without her own blog, without having written before, SherriPizza has given time and thought to giving you a glimpse into the challenges both she and her son face with Autism. For that, I am humbled and honored. Thank you SherriP. You can follow her on Twitter as @SherriPizza.

Well, this kind of sounds like birthday parties I attend.  Or rather….used to attend.  How about you?  Have you had a similar experience?

36 Responses to Why "Kiddie Parties" are no fun for me by SherriPizza • All About Autism Series 2011

  1. Sherri–I understand exactly what you are saying. I even just reread a post about play dates yesterday and shared it “from the archives” on Twitter. http://wp.me/p1seto-8w I have felt all the things you’ve felt, and cried similar tears. Thank you for sharing, so others get a glimpse into our world. A friend of mine has published two picture books about autism, and her 3rd is on this topic. She titled it “Ashi’s Birthday and Other Dreaded Days”. I can’t wait to get my hands on it so others can understand! :) I finally had to start telling myself, “He’s having fun his way,” and that helped some. I distinctly remember being invited to another spectrum child’s bday this February to an indoor playscape place, of all places! I sat on a chair w/my son curled up in my lap for fifteen minutes or so because it was too overwhelming for him. I thought, “I’m at an AUTISTIC birthday party, and we still don’t fit in!” He eventually warmed up and had fun, but it was hard. Great job on your first post!

    • Thanks so much for understanding Jenny! I know the feeling, of thinking “We’re at another autistic child’s birthday party and we still don’t fit in.” It’s challenging, but I keep trying. I also tell myself that my son is having fun in his way, and I believe that that’s totally true. I would love to read your friend’s books if you don’t mind sharing their titles.

  2. Sherri, I know exactly how you feel. My boy is 13 now, so the birthday parties and playdates are just a painful memory.

    We kept going, but we kinda made lemonade out of lemons by leaving earlier and earlier from these events. People started to realize that Griffin couldn’t really handle it and it became our standard excuse for leaving everything hours before it would have been polite to do so. Since my wife an I are kinda anti-social, this worked in our favor.

    • Good thinking on making lemonade out of lemons, Big Daddy! I try to overcome my preference for avoiding these parties and take my son even if for a very short amount of time, because otherwise it’s just the two of us, my son has no siblings.

  3. Sherri~ Great post, thank you for taking the time to explain this for others who might not know, and for the rest of us to say, “Yep. Know *exactly* what you’re saying”.

    We no longer really go to b-day parties. We might coordinate it so someone can go for a time with other kiddos, but never all of us. What has been nice is that some people will ask us if this or that would be okay for J or if it would send him over. Smaller gatherings with people he’s very familiar with are manageable. Otherwise, we rarely go any more.

    Thanks again Sherri!

  4. Wow, welll… I couldn’t afford to live in New York City. Are you kidding me? My parents used to have a place out that way and the taxes alone would eat up all our family income. I went to suburban public school in high school (Horace Greeley Quakers! Yay!) and the school was *great.* I wish I could afford public school like that for my kids but you know, we can only do what we can do. I wish you all the best!! I’m homeschooling some of my children right now because that’s the best I can afford right now, too. :)

    • Happy Elf Mom, there are many reasons why people live where they do. Cost is not the only consideration. There can be older relatives one has to take care of too. Or it can be important (especially since there’s only my son and myself) to be near family and friends. I have a tiny, tiny family, my father died long ago, when I was in high school (I’m 42 now), and my mother and grandmother are not well. Or one’s job might be in a particular location. But even looking at cost, the cost of a car, car insurance and gas elsewhere would cancel out much of the financial benefit of moving. Those are not the only factors, just a few of them.

      • Sorry if my comment came across as criticism – I was trying to *validate* that just living out there is expensive and nevermind the private school, yk? Here in Missouri, the cost of living is way lower but they *lock kids in closets* in public school when they misbehave and paddling procedures are outlined in the school handbook. There are very few things I miss about NY and the schools are one of them; don’t feel badly about sending your child. :)

  5. Hi Sherri! Thanks for sharing your experience in such a clear and honest way. You don’t need to worry about blogging in the future. You area a natural. I am a special ed teacher and I hope I won’t offend you by offering a couple of suggestions for birthday parties. I agree with the earlier post that suggested making a plan to stay for a shorter time if that helps make the time you are there better. I would also suggest a picture social story about the upcoming event, combined with a picture schedule for the actual party…attach the pictures to the schedule with paper clips or velcro so that you can change the schedule if you need to. You can use pictures to represent “play time” “give the gift” “cake time” “time to open gifts” “time to go” “say bye and thanks” etc. If you don’t have a source for pictures you can get fine schedule pictures off google images… You may already know all of this but I thought I would give it a try. Good luck.

    • Thank you Paula! I’ve used picture social stories for events like birthday parties, children’s religious services and children’s concerts. They are helpful and useful. But now, my son understands the information even without pictures, he can be told what to expect and comprehends it. However, he still is unable to interact and play with other children, sit still long enough for sit-down activities like concerts, religious services or arts & crafts (due to both attention issues and sensory issues), or perform the fine motor skills activities required during an arts & crafts activity. But he does grasp what the event involves, his auditory comprehension has improved so that he needs social stories less than he did a year ago.

  6. Great post, Sherri!!! So glad you wrote one!!! I hear you with the bday parties. Katie will participate for the most part, but she cannot handle it for long. She usually either meltsdown or retreats altogether. What is bad at her age is that kids will come up and try to engage her, and she rebuffs the attempts, and soon tey will not be so forgiving or willing to try. I usually end up close to tears and covered in sweat by the end, after trying to deal with her for an hour or two.

    And the food…haha…yeah. At Music for Autism Katie was in heaven…all that food lined up. We made several visits. ; )

    • Thanks Jen! I worry too about the other kids just giving up and no longer approaching my son. He really likes other kids, but can’t really interact appropriately with them. If I prompt him to hand a toy to another child — or if a therapist or teacher prompt him — he willingly does so. He just needs constant prompting in order to interact and engage.

  7. Thank you Laura! I keep trying with my son, and when it gets to be too much, we leave early. I’m most dismayed by those old friends who’ve stopped inviting us altogether. I’m so grateful when we are invited!

  8. Hi Sherri, I figured you were already an old hand at social stories and picture schedules. I do want to say that stressful situations (even if the stress is postive…like cake and decorations) can push skills back down to a lower level so picture supports might still prove helpful…also a count down measure might help your son stay close to the action for increasing periods of time…”We’ll stay at the table for 5, 4 etc…you can manage the increments but he gets to see that he will get “released”. Proximity and completion of a simpler version of the activity…even just the last step…are a good, adapted expectation for now. Ok, thanks for putting up with my suggestions.

    • Paula, I think the counting down idea is great, because these days my son loves numbers, and also stims on them, counts to 10 or backwards from 10 over and over again. He’s also gradually gaining a concept of time. So I will try that — great suggestion, thanks!

  9. Great post, Sherri! Yeah, we don’t really do the party thing either. It’s just too much. So we totally know where you’re coming from with that. And as for the food, it’s almost always stuff my allergic kids can’t eat anyway! :-)

    Look forward to your blog. 😉

    • Thank you Laura! I keep trying with my son, and when it gets to be too much, we leave early. I’m most dismayed by those old friends who’ve stopped inviting us altogether. I’m so grateful when we are invited!

  10. OMG, Sherri, I totally, totally get it. You are not alone.

    We have soooo much in common. Almost all of it, in fact. Except for the Yankees part.

    • Grace, it sure helps to “talk” to people who get it! I hope what I wrote made you feel less alone too.

  11. Birthday parties are supposed to bring us together, socially. Ironic, isn’t it how they further isolate us from the others? I so understand that. We’ve all been there. The only parties we’ve been to are at Chuck E Cheese (the worst place in the universe)! My son barely holds still long enough to say hello and then runs like crazy all around, becomes overstimulated and has to leave because of a meltdown. So much fun!! But I know how you feel about the need to keep going.

    You have a great writing style. Hope you will keep writing! :)

    • So true Karen. Birthday parties or holiday celebrations are meant to bring us together and often wind up making us feel most isolated. My son, much like yours, runs around like crazy at these events and it takes a lot of effort on my part to calm him down. But to add even more irony, as much as these kiddie parties are no fun for me, I wish my old friends who stopped inviting us hadn’t stopped… I wish we got more invitations, rather than less. I would keep taking my son, and as they say, practice makes perfect…

  12. Great Post.
    I can totally relate to this post. Sometimes I wish I could be standing on the sidelines watching my boys play but like you I am following them around the party making sure my youngest who is autistic doesnt get into the food or just run off, since he is a runner. I have two friend, one with 3 boys on the spectrum and one with a son on the spectrum and they are the only ones that invite us to their birthday parties and sometimes I feel so isolated, I hope my kids dont feel that way. I have learned to except some things and this is one of them

  13. wow, I get it!! My daughter (Anna, 7) has down sydrome and I have exactly the same types of problems! I’m a single mom, it’s me with her at a party. She doesn’t interact (well, she will hit the other kids or pull their hair if that is considered interacting)

    I have to keep her from dumping kids’ plates or knocking over their drinks (geez, why can’t parties for 1st gradies use sippie cups???) I think you’ll find others of us who totally understand!

  14. Great job, Sherri! No, you are NOT whining. Reality, your reality, is what you are sharing. Your reality and many other’s as well. It can rub some folks the wrong way to read and have to be “made aware of anything out of the norm” but I say, Great job! Speak your truth.
    BTW, we do NOT attend Birthday Parties, family parties, public functions of any kind as a family. Not only from a behavioral standpoint, but from a medical standpoint as well. It is not a healthy choice any longer for our son…and with what you have described above happening to us as well… it is emotionally unhealthy for us as his parents as well.

  15. I so relate to much of what you go through. My 6 y/o is also very delayed in speech and social skills, and has serious sensory problems (esp. noise, too much going on around him to process, such as at parties, and a very rigid sense of “personal space”). One thing I am almost jealous of is that your son actually EATS. Mine is so affected by his sensory issues that I can count on one hand the number of foods he will actually ingest. Pizza is his favorite, but obviously we can’t give him that for every meal of every day. He will eat PB&J, Goldfish crackers (cheddar only – even the garden cheddar, so at least he’s getting *some* veggies), sour cream & onion chips, Doritos, NutriGrain bars & ketchup sandwiches (bread & ketchup)…….Okay, maybe I can count them on 2 hands. ; )
    No chicken nuggets, or fish sticks, or hamburgers, hot dogs, mac & cheese, French fries, pasta, popcorn, grilled cheese sandwiches, or even sweets, esp. chocolate – the stuff “normal” kids usually love. He will not drink milk. We’ve only recently gotten him to take sips of water here and there, but otherwise, he will only drink juice. We’ve tried the “when he gets hungry/thirsty enough, he’ll try it” approach, but nope – he will actually go without, for however long it takes. It’s impossible to withhold liquids when it’s summer and 100 degrees in the shade. It just doesn’t work. And nobody has been able to give us any ideas for a reasonable, workable approach to getting him onto a larger variety of food choices. That is, for us, one of the most difficult aspects of his Autism issues. So, yeah – if my son went straight for the snack table, I’d be doing a happy dance, even though he’d still sit out on the activities, and be ignored by the other kids. ; )

    • TraceyNH~

      Thank you for sharing!

      The eating thing…wow, that’s hard. I thought my guy was limited. I don’t know if his is a sensory thing or taste or what, but his limited foods probably span both hands… and then it’s limited because of his gluten, casein, soy, egg and peanut allergies. If it weren’t for those, he’d have maybe another hand…LOL. Combine your son’s food limitations with the other sensory issues and I can imagine that birthday parties are not going to be in his future. Sometimes, I think one of our biggest jobs is to find ourselves okay with changing what’s expected from us as individuals and as a family….there are other ways he can help celebrate birthdays!

  16. Hi it makes me cry just reading your story and all those replies. At times I curl up and feel sorry for myself. U give me hope persevering the way U do. My son is 4yrs allergic to most things. Cannot talk but loves Barney and music. He’s not potty trained. I live in south africa so there’s very few facilities for autistic children. I want to home school him but don’t know where to start. U are doing the best that u can so keep it up.

Leave a Reply