Once you start preschool, it seems that the birthday party invitations start a’coming.  Nate was only in public school for three weeks before he received two invites – one for a party at the end of July and one for an event in September.  (These moms know how to plan ahead!)  Nate’s been to birthday parties – his own, of course – an as-traditional-as-we-could-get Hawaiian luau in Connecticut, a Curious George bash at Chef Pisghetti’s, and this year’s Winnie the Pooh soiree, and those of family members or family friends.  So, when we got invited to his new classmates’ birthday parties, we were thrilled.  Both friends are on the spectrum, so we know that the events will be mindful of all of the guests’ special needs and we’re not anticipating masses of birthday well-wishers at the gathering.

During Nate’s 2.5 week summer break, he sent a little time back at his day care, mingling with old friends and having fun by (literally) turning the hose on them.  One kid in particular, Johnny, has been quite a pal to Nate.  Johnny’s very verbal and makes up for Nate’s lack of words.  On numerous occasions, it has been reported that the boys have meals together.  Johnny holds the conversation for the both of them.  It goes something like this:

Johnny:  “Hey, Nate!  What do you have for lunch today?  Is it good?”

Nate: (Chewing)

Johnny: (Pausing long enough for one to typically respond) “Hey, that sounds awesome!  My mom gave me Cheerios.  I like Cheerios.  Do you like Cheerios?”

Nate: (Chewing)

Johnny: Yeah, I think they’re pretty awesome, too.  Do you like Thomas the Tank?

Nate: (Slurping soy milk)

Johnny: I think Thomas is great but I like Cranky the Crane more.

Seriously.  This happens often.  I’ve thanked Johnny numerous times for being so kind to Nate and we even baked him chocolate chip cookies on the day when he willingly offered his own snack to my boy, who was furiously signing, “I WANT THAT!” over and over again.  So when we returned to day care and received an invite to Johnny’s 3rd birthday party, we were excited.  And nervous.

This was Nate’s first neurotypical, non-family birthday party.  It was at a local bounce house place – lots of bounce houses indoors – for two hours on a Sunday afternoon (today).  Chad has to work the night shift tonight, so I took Nate to the party by myself.  I was worried that it would be loud and overwhelming.  Nate’s been to another bounce house but during autism-only mornings where all the participants are on the spectrum and the participation level is kept to a minimum.  This was going to be a free-for-all and could be a sheer and utter disaster.

There were water bouncy slides, too, so I came armed with two bathing suits (one for Nate, one for me), swimmer diapers (for Nate, obviously), sunscreen, a sun hat, two towels, swim shoes, regular shoes, socks (for me & Nate; can’t be in the bounce area without them), and Johnny’s present.  Basically, I wheeled in a mini-suitcase for a two-hour party.  We got there a half-hour late (oops) and the party was in full swing.  Kids were soaking wet on the slides and Nate stared at them.  I could tell he wanted to join them but couldn’t figure out how.  I could also tell that, by the time I got us suited up, the moment would have passed.  So we smartly went inside, put on our socks, and aimed to bounce to our heart’s content.

It turns out that there were two birthday parties being celebrated today: Johnny’s event + another tyke who we didn’t know.  While not packed, the place was busy with kids who weren’t being monitored closely.  Lots of running, lots of accidental shoving, lots of not paying attention to who gets to go in first. Nate was *not* going in anything bouncy.  We found his friend, Jordyn, from school.  She came over to say hi.  Nate was not going to say hi.  So I walked around (with Nate clinging tightly to me) looking for an abandoned bouncy structure to warm Nate up to the idea.

I found a wee structure, something that was probably meant for toddlers with a bounce area, little obstacle course, and a small slide.  We went to get into the opening when a bigger kid (eight? nine?) shoved us aside and went in.  Nate and I stood outside of the bounce house until the kid got out and then we went in together.  Nate did *not* want to stand in the house but he did laugh when I jumped while holding him.  (Want a workout?  Bounce in a bounce house while holding a 30-pound kid.) We bounced, we went down the slide, we got out.  That, my friends, was the extent of Nate’s bounce time.

The facility had a sitting area for parents to rest and for much younger kids to play, as it was filled with baby toys.  Nate’s friend, Daniel, was over there so we said hello and Nate parallel played with Daniel for a bit with some open-shut-open-shut-again toy.  At this point, I saw the birthday boy, soaking wet from the water slides, run into the party room.  So, being good guests, we followed.

The room was filled with long plastic picnic tables, all pushed up against each other to make two really long tables.  So Nate didn’t feel boxed in, we ran and got a seat at the very end of one row.  The party food was already set out: cheese pizza, Thomas the Tank fruit snacks, and a fruit punch juice box.  We didn’t expect lunch at this party (it was 2 when the kids started to eat) so I fed Nate before we arrived.  But I wanted him to be part of the social event of eating with friends so I broke our rule and let him eat those gosh darn fruit snacks.  (Nate’s terrified of tomato sauce so the pizza was out and he doesn’t drink juice; I brought a cup of water for him to enjoy.)  We haven’t given Nate fruit snacks for many reasons.  One, his vitamins (dyed with fruit juice) are gummies, too, and I don’t want Nate to ever think he could eat as many vitamins as he wants.  Two, there’s nothing good in them – it’s just sugar and gelatin.  And three, we try as much as possible to keep artificial color out of Nate’s diet.  These Thomas the Tank treats nearly glowed in the dark.

But Nate ate them.  Heck, he loved them (except for the orange and purple ones).  And he sat there, with peers, eating snacks and swinging his legs and was being normal.  Except that the kids were eating pizza and juice and fruit snacks and Nate ran out of fruit snacks way before the kids were done.  Then he got ants in his pants and did what any kid at a birthday party with ants in his pants would do: tried to serve himself some cake.  Numerous times.  

I managed to cut Nate off at the pass at every attempt though one try was way too close for comfort.  For five minutes before cake time, I kept telling Nate that we would all sing Happy Birthday! and it would be loud and likely off key and the room would be dark.  Then it would be over and he could eat cake!  The singing, thank goodness, was quiet and the cake was fun, lit up with a solo sparkler.  And the room helper got cake distributed to the kids quickly so no kid started crying needlessly.  Nate only wanted the frosting — no cake, please — and only wanted to use his fingers, which meant he was done in about two minutes.  No one else was done.  So we did a little roaming around the room.

It was hot in the party space – no air conditioning, it seems – and there was a giant banner up on the wall so we looked at Thomas the Tank and Percy while we sweated.  A little boom box playing the children’s choir of songs from the Thomas series had been turned off for the cake ceremony.  Nate decided to rectify this problem and went right for the stereo.  As Nate has my old stereo at home as a toy, I knew where this was going.  He wanted to open the CD player and put a CD in and out of the player.  He wanted to open and close the cassette door and push every button — rewind, forward, play, record, pause — all at the same time.  And, most importantly, Nate wanted to get everything covered in frosting fingerprints so he could get the recognition he so rightfully deserved for turning the party tunes back on and making the event a grand success.

Nate did not get to touch the stereo.  By this point, we were hot and his meal of Thomas gummies and frosting was setting in.  Nate pitched a little fit.  We went back outside to bounce (other kids were headed back out to play as well) and Nate willingly left the room but refused to bounce in the play area.  Instead, he wanted to bounce on the leather couch in the baby toy area.  Over and over again…head first.  Cue the music, people — we’re going home!

I wrangled all of our stuff together and carried my flailing child toward the door to put on his shoes.  When I set Nate down to put on my shoes, he took off running as fast as he could to go bounce on the couch again (which was a good distance away).  So I had to take off my shoes to run after Nate and carried him, flailing even more, back to the door to go to the car.  It was really hot when we got outside and the temperature change snapped Nate out of his frustration.  We got in the car, cranked up the air conditioning, and turned on Curious George so Nate wouldn’t fall asleep on the way home.  I opened a snack bag of Sun Chips for Tater to eat thinking maybe the chips would absorb some of the sugar.  Maybe.

So what did I learn today?  I can take Nate to a birthday party by myself; I can manage a not-so-graceful exit; my son can run really, really fast (which I am grateful for considering he was such a late walker); and I need to pack my own snacks for parties.  The next one is Robbie’s party.  Robbie’s on the spectrum, too, so I’m less worried about this one but I also am going solo with Tater to this because it’s being held on Chad’s first day of orientation at Yale.  This party is a Zumba event.  Nate loves tunes and loves to dance so I think it will be fun.  But I also look forward to the day when some brilliant parent throws a nap party – for kids and parents alike.

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