The other day we threw a birthday party for our son Max. He turned 8. He is magnificently, magically, and marvelously 8! He had a birthday party with friends in the neighborhood, friends who love and accept him just the way he is. Days like this are what I live for. They give me hope for his future and for the future of our world. In a society where acceptance and equality is painfully not always the norm, days like Maxim’s birthday remind me that goodness and acceptance do exist. This kindness often begins with our children and the amazing people who raise them to choose love.
There was a time, though, when I wasn’t sure if a day like this would happen. Not necessarily because Max wouldn’t one day be ready or want it for himself, but because I wondered if the world would be able to accept him for who he was. Would they want to celebrate with a boy so gloriously and magically different? Could they see past the label to the incredible child inside?
This was Max’s first birthday party with friends. For Max, traditional parties can be overstimulating and overwhelming, so in the past we have found other ways to make him king for the day! We still tried to have family come to celebrate, but the happy pictures and video clips posted on Facebook did not show the anxiety Max felt that slowly bubbled and eventually overflowed.
To anyone who sees Max’s anxiety it may seem like he doesn’t want to participate in certain events, like we are forcing him because we think it’s what he should do or because it’s what we want. This isn’t the case though. He wants to be around others, but sometimes struggles in the moment. Excitement can quickly turn to anxiety and his desire to participate can become jumbled with stress.
We weren’t quite sure how this party would go, but we hoped with the right setup and support that we were right when we felt he was ready.
“I can’t wait for my friends to come!” he chanted for days and days before the party.
Over time Max has grown into a social butterfly! He doesn’t always make eye contact, respond to his name, or answer questions from his peers. He sometimes becomes overwhelmed and melts down in groups. But one thing is for sure, he Loves to be around people. If he melts down in social situations, it is because he is overwhelmed, not because he doesn’t enjoy time with friends.
This is something I think is so important for people to know. Sometimes our children on the spectrum are assumed to be antisocial because they have a different way of engaging with the world around them. And sometimes children are considered to not be on the spectrum because they demonstrate a typical social response.
“He’s not autistic. He’s anything but autistic,” the neurologist said. “Look! He waves and smiles.”
“I don’t think he has autism,” the therapist sighed. “He is so sweet. He’s always giving hugs. He loves attention.”
What did this mean? If Maxim did in fact have Autism would he stop being social? Would his smiles and hugs, his giggles and affection stop?
Of course it wouldn’t. The presence of a diagnosis wouldn’t ever change who he was, but would people hear his diagnosis and cease to see his efforts to connect if they were different from the norm?
A diagnosis of Autism doesn’t mean children are antisocial. Anxiety and difficulty in certain environments doesn’t mean children don’t want to be there. Although Max does have some very big differences in the way he communicates and responds to his environment as compared to his neurotypical peers, his desire to be a part of the world around him is no less than theirs. Children who have a hard time conforming to the standards set forth by a neurotypical society don’t simply cease to desire connection. They may just have a different way of going about it.
Max definitely has his own way of doing things and seeing the world. He often needs different accommodations or a different set up than we are used to using, but with the right support he can contribute so much more than you can even imagine to just about any situation he is in. The question is, will you have eyes to see his efforts if they are different from your own?
On the day of his birthday, and all the days before when they gathered to play, his neighborhood friends did. Together these children laugh and sing. They run, play, bounce, and skip. These children see beyond Max’s lack of eye contact and they understand when he doesn’t respond. They wait patiently for him to formulate his thoughts, and they accept his hyper focus on dinosaurs and trains. If it becomes too much and he melts down, they offer compassion not judgement. They share his joy, and they appreciate the beauty he brings to the world, even if it’s delivered in a very different way.
Max and his neighborhood friends share precious moments that fill my heart with hope. To them Autism doesn’t mean “antisocial” or even “different,” it simply means “friend.” These children and their parents see beyond preconceived notions and assumptions right into the very heart of the boy. When you meet a person with Autism, will you?