I’m a proud mother of three pretty amazing kids, one of whom has special needs. My son is your “typical” middle child. A wild, rambunctious little boy sandwiched between his older and somewhat quieter sister and his younger, easy-to-love brother. To look at him, you’d never know that G has special needs. But spend any amount of time in his presence, especially when he’s around other people, and it becomes obvious pretty quickly that he’s “different.” He’s been diagnosed with ADHD, Tourette Syndrome, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and anxiety, and is currently being evaluated for autism. He can’t be still, his volume is always at level 100, he is constantly instigating someone (usually his younger brother), and will do or say anything, no matter how embarrassing or inappropriate, if he thinks it will get a laugh out of someone. He’s very far behind his peers in terms of maturity and social behavior, and he struggles a lot with making and keeping friends. He’s such a sweet and funny boy, but his behaviors often make him an outcast with kids his own age. He’s been called the “weird kid” more times than I care to think about, and seeing him come home from school upset about something someone said or did to him that day never gets easier.
We’re in the thick of the holiday season right now, which is both my favorite and most dreaded time of year. I love the holidays and celebrations and family time.
But G’s birthday is right after Christmas, and that fills me with a level of anxiety that only a special needs parent can understand.
My son is in 4th grade and, counting his year in preschool, he has been in school with the same group of children for the last five years.
He has not been invited to a single classmate’s birthday party in all that time. Not one. And most of his classmates don’t come to his birthday parties either.
For his sixth birthday, my son wanted a roller skating party. It was all he talked about for weeks and he was so incredibly excited for his party. We invite his whole class to every birthday party so no one is ever left out. That year, there were 16 kids in his class. Three of them came to the party, and they spent the whole time hanging out with each other.
He celebrated both his seventh and eighth birthdays during the pandemic, and I’m almost embarrassed at the amount of relief I felt during those two years. It was a welcome relief to not have to worry about explaining to him why so-and-so couldn’t make it, or to invite friends of mine or my husband’s who have kids the same age (but who have never actually spent any time with my son) just so there would be other children besides his siblings and cousins there, or to come up with excuses for why this child or that child wasn’t coming that wouldn’t hurt his feelings.
His ninth birthday was a bowling party, and G was pumped. He loves bowling and is pretty good at it. Our bowling alley plays cool music, has an arcade and a restaurant, and is generally a really fun place to have a party. He picked out his cake and invitations and a cool theme and the outfit he was going to wear weeks ahead of time. He brought his invitations to school and proudly handed them out to all 18 of his classmates, and came home every day and asked me if anyone had sent an RSVP. His whole body lit up when I told him that someone was coming. It didn’t matter who it was, he was just thrilled to have friends there.
On the day of his party, just four kids showed up.
He was so excited to hang out with some of his classmates that he didn’t seem to notice or be bothered by the fact that most of them didn’t come. While they were eating cake, my son mentioned setting up a play date with one of his friends later that afternoon. That friend said he couldn’t come over later because he was going to another classmate’s birthday party that afternoon. The other kids at the table mentioned they were also going to the party later. My son hadn’t been invited.
His tenth birthday is in a few weeks and I’m feeling the anxiety. When we started throwing out ideas for a birthday party last month, my son wanted to have his at a trampoline park. He was very adamant that—as always—he wanted to invite the entire class so no one was angry or upset about not being invited. Normally, my husband and I would be panicking about the insanely high cost of having a birthday party at a trampoline park and trying to budget enough money to be able to afford the added cost of having more than the allotted number of kids attending. Instead, we booked the party without worry, knowing there likely won’t be many kids there, but prepared to happily pay any extra fees in the event that more than a few classmates come.
G brought his invitations to school and handed them all out, so now we wait. He comes home in the afternoon and asks if anyone has RSVP’d yet and when I tell him no, I watch his little body deflate. I remind him that there’s still time, that people may be figuring out their plans for after the holidays, that we’ll have a blast no matter who is there. Then I send him off to school the next morning and pray someone will RSVP before he comes home so I have some good news to give him. Rinse and repeat.
He is at the age now where it’s becoming obvious who the “cool” kids are and who doesn’t fit in. The kids come to school and talk about what they did over the weekend and who they hung out with. My son doesn’t get invited places and the few parents I’ve reached out to about setting something up either don’t respond at all or leave me with “I’ll check our schedule and let you know” but never follow up. I get it. My son is a lot to handle and he’s not like most of the other kids his age.
But it breaks my heart every single time.
This is his last year of elementary school and it may be the last year he’ll have a birthday party like this before someone decides in middle school that it’s not the cool thing to do anymore. I’m hoping this is the year he’ll have an epic birthday party with tons of guests like he’s always planned. That parents will see his invitation and, at the very least, look at it as a way for their kids to do something fun for two hours while mom and dad get a break. I want my son to celebrate with his friends and eat too much cake and pass out at the end of the night from sheer exhaustion, then wake up the next morning and talk a mile a minute about what a fantastic party he had. I want him to come home from school the following Monday and tell me all about how much fun the other kids told him they had. I want him to have just one “normal” birthday party.
I’m not a very religious person, but I’m hopeful. And I’m hoping this is his year.