My son’s 1st birthday was a grand affair – magicians, balloon makers, face painting, clowns, mascots – the whole nine yards. From then on, we have celebrated each of his birthdays with just as much enthusiasm, expecting that in time our son would start dictating how he wants his birthday to be celebrated. Autism changed that plan a little.

Over time, we realised he had no clue what a birthday is, what parties are, or what it feels like to get gifts.He never asked for a gift or showed interest in those he received. He seemed aloof at his own birthday party, as if he was standing among aliens, without a clue of what was happening. We then realised that we do not have to follow the crowd and do what is expected on birthdays. We decided to do what we knew for sure our son would enjoy any day of the week and just give him more of that experience on his special day. So, as a ritual, we now book a night at an indoor water park and let him have a field day. He loves it.

Though this took care of the anxiety of his birthday, we still had to deal with other social gatherings – barbeque parties, birthdays of other kids, Christmas parties, Halloween parties and so many more. Although we wanted to be part of the fun, the pressure of being there with my son Vedant was too much. He would cry, try to escape, try dragging us to the car, have accidents, withdraw himself in a corner or sometimes get too excited and get physical with other guests. Our knee-jerk reaction was to stop going to any of these events. I started with giving excuses for not attending and soon ran out of them.

It was then that I decided that hiding away was not a solution. If Vedant has to survive in this world, he needs to learn to cope and we have to help him do that. Over time, my husband and I have unconsciously and with some planning come up with a less stressful way of dealing with this problem. Here are some of the things we do for a “successful” (it can mean different things for different people) day at a social gathering.

Change expectations

This was the biggest change we made. We know that our son lacks social skills. We had to understand that going to a party was more of a social experiment for us than a fun exercise. We could not go into a party expecting that our son would sit down with other kids and play a board game or run around playing tag. We had to accept that it was going to be tough on him being around so many people and so much noise and that it was going to be some work for us to keep him calm. When this expectation changed, we knew what we were getting into. We complained less because we knew that this was more of a learning experience for our son than an unwinding opportunity for us. It is harsh, but practical.

Define a baseline

This was the second most important thing we needed to agree upon. Although we knew that our son was going to be uncomfortable and probably not really have as much fun as other kids, we still needed to define how much is too much for him. Some parties can get really noisy, some can be relatively laid back. We had to know when it was time for us to thank the host and leave. We needed to ensure that the experience was tolerable, if not enjoyable, for our son so that he is not anxious next time he was in a social situation.

First in last out is not important

I made it a point to inform the host every time that we would be coming in late and leaving early. Staying for a shorter time served two purposes – first, it minimised the stress for all of us because the duration was short and it gave our son the opportunity to be at a fun event but not get overwhelmed by it. As he gets used to being in situations like these, we can slowly start to stay back longer and enjoy more.

Take turns

To avoid sensory overload, Vedant has tried to escape on several occasions. Being in an unfamiliar place, caused him to have accidents and his Pica would kick in when he was left unattended. Pica is the persistent eating of substances such as dirt or paint that have no nutritional value So, my husband and I decided to split time. While I spent the first 15 minutes keeping an eye on Vedant, my husband could hang around with his friends and then we switched, like police patrol. This strategy has worked really well for us. We are able to catch up with our friends and also not let our son feel insecure or unattended.

Participation is not mandatory

My son never showed interest in his own birthday, why would he be excited about someone else’s? I stopped dragging him around the birthday cake, forcing him to sing, clap and pose for pictures. It was such a relief. Previously, I would try to push him to do that because that is what kids do. We both ended up being upset. Now, when I stopped, I noticed he gets excited watching other kids and sometimes claps on his own. He is more invested when it is not imposed on him. I also know that he hates party games like getting his face painted or being inside a bouncy castle. So, I do not push him any more. I encourage him, I want him to try something new, but not by making him uncomfortable. I would rather have him leave the place feeling happy and relaxed than upset and stressed

Be open

Parties can be stressful when you have a lot of unfamiliar people to deal with. I still generally avoid parties if I know that there will be a lot of new faces. Such occasions generally mean the guests will not know about my son’s diagnosis of autism and that is a conversation I tend not to have all the time, especially not on occasions when people have gathered to have some fun. However, when I do find myself and my son standing next to stranger staring down at him out of curiosity or judgement, I would rather introduce myself and tell them about my son. This levels the playing field. The heaviness lifts from my head and I can breathe again while the new acquaintance ruminates over the new information.

Tulika Prasad with her son Vedant.
Tulika Prasad with her son Vedant.

Sensory activity

I know for a fact that a sensory toy can keep my son calm for a while so I carry one with me. This keeps him engaged and more in control and it buys me some more time. I offer him a tight hug, a swirl or two, tickles, some calming music every now and then. These helps while he tries to cope in a challenging environment.

Talk about it

Vedant is not just non-verbal, he also cannot understand conversations. Still, when we go to a social gathering, I make sure I talk to him about it on our way to the venue. I tell him where we are going, whom we will meet, what the party is about, and what to expect there. I really do not expect him to understand much, though I hope that one day he will. I do not want him to be taken by surprise when we arrive at the party. Even if he can catch only bits and pieces of the information is have given him, it is much better than not telling him at all. I am sure he braces himself for what is coming if he is informed better. I also make it a point to excitedly talk about what all we did at the party once we are back home so that he has good memories of it.

The strategies we use seem to be working well but there are always days when, like any other kid, he throws us a surprise. Well, who said autism was easy? It makes you work and work hard at that. It can be fun one day and a challenge most of the days. As long as we keep trying, the journey will be worth the effort. We might fail, but as long as we are not defeated, we will continue to work our way through it and enjoy the party while it lasts.

This article has been republished with permission from the writer’s blog.