His 2nd birthday party came and went. It was nothing like I’d imagined or secretly hoped for. There was no singing of “Happy Birthday”. Being surrounded and focused on by a group of people scares him and, to have them all start singing at him…there would only be tears. The candles scared him too, and he couldn’t handle the texture of cake. Our house was filled with friends and loved ones. He didn’t handle that well either. Three times during the party, he disappeared and came back with his little tennis shoes. His way of telling us he wanted to leave.
He loves to walk. His chubby little fingers grasp our hands tight and he quietly braves the outside world, with its bright lights and blaring sounds. He slowly makes his way around the block, often needing to stop for a moment when his sensory system is overloaded. Body shaking and eyes wide, his grip on our hands tighten. Then, we know he needs a little reassurance to keep going…and he always does, because his love for exploration outweighs his fear of it.
He went for three walks that day. Three times during his own birthday party, he wasn’t there. My husband patiently walked with him while I tried to entertain our guests. Between walks, he opened presents. He did it with an almost pained look of deep concentration on his face, the feel and sound of the tissue paper clearly triggering some discomfort. Then, it was over. Everyone went home and I fought hard against the feeling that I’d somehow failed him. I let what we were “supposed” to do for his birthday overshadow the truth about that day: Traditions, from an eternal perspective, don’t really matter.
It sounds harsh because traditions are sentimental, and tied to so many memories and emotions for most of us. Yet, getting caught up in them can make us forget that the traditions themselves are not what special life events are about. Birthdays and holidays don’t need to look a certain way. They don’t need to play out the same way every year in every household. My son’s birthday party wasn’t about singing, candles or cake. It was about celebrating the gift that he is to us; the gift that spending two years with him has been. If honoring him and who he is doesn’t look anything like the traditional birthday party all of his friends are having, so be it! In fact, as I’ve learned with my daughter (who also has Autism), celebrating my son may someday mean not having a party at all. That needs to be okay, even if those around us don’t understand it.
It took me almost eight years of breaking traditions to finally give myself permission to grieve some of the things my children can’t do and, at the same time, celebrate what they can do without feeling the underlying mom guilt. Though there’s always the chance I’ll get a few judgmental comments about what tradition looks like at our house, I can rest in the truth that I’m giving my children what truly matters in the grand scheme of things…joyful memories, spoken in the language of their hearts. Giving them permission to be themselves, even if that means “Happy Birthday” is replaced by a simple walk around the block. What makes a tradition great is not always in the what, but in the how: “…do everything with love.” 1 Corinthians 16:13-14