“I want to GO TOO! I want to go to Mill-ya’s party!” Henry screamed, kicking my seat with his Spider-Man sneakers. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we had just dropped Rose off at her friend Amelia’s carnival-themed birthday party.
“Henry,” Jack interrupted his brother’s wailing, irritated. “Stop crying. I never go to birthday parties.”
Hearing him say this, I realized he’s right. He never does. He never goes to birthday parties.
As we made the short drive home, I tried to remember the last time Jack was invited to a party. It’s been three years, at least. I guess after a while I just stopped noticing, but apparently he didn’t.
Now, good and gracious people of New Hampshire, this is not an invitation for invitations.
This is not like when I say I hate my hair and I kind of expect someone to say oh it looks fine. Do not sit little Brian and Xavier and Charlotte down when they’re figuring out who to invite to their parties and insist, “Now, let’s include that nice boy Jack, shall we?”
I am not asking for that.
Because—as much as it breaks my heart to say it—I cannot solve this for him. The absence of brightly colored envelopes inviting Jack to laser tag and roller skating and bowling parties is not something I can fix, any more than I can get rid of all the static on the radio or make him eat a container of strawberry yogurt.
I can’t change the natural selection of socialization, and the truth is this: most kids do not want a guest at their party who asks over and over in his loudest voice if your toenails fall off after you die.
Let’s just say Jack doesn’t exactly connect with people his own age. He is bossy and abrupt and he always wants to be in charge. He does not like tag or raucous games of football. He doesn’t laugh at jokes and he doesn’t understand the nuances of made-up play.
Rather, he sort of latches on to the adults in his world; paraprofessionals and recess monitors and teachers. He considers them his peers—whenever I ask him who his friends are, he invariably rattles off names that start with “Mrs.” or “Mr.”
And as a holdover from his wordless toddler years—when the people in his life seemed to be little more than tools to get him juice or put the Baby Einstein movie in one more time—his affections are somewhat motivated by what others can accomplish for him.
Over the summer he became preoccupied with Miss Jenn, an instructor at the karate studio. Petite and blonde and energetic, Miss Jenn was in charge of one of Jack’s favorite games; Just Dance competitions on the Wii.
And so Jack’s version of friendship blossomed; every morning before karate camp he would ask over and over if Miss Jenn was going to be there, because he wanted to dance with her. As I walked out of the building after dropping him off, I’d hear him ask her loudly if she brought the game, when they would play, could he go first.
And come fall, when our karate schedule changed and he no longer saw her, he wrote her letters. Long, heartfelt letters in his best cursive writing wishing her a Happy Birthday, telling her he missed her.
I’d be lying if I said the letters didn’t unnerve me a little. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wonder when Jack would find his place with kids his own age, with his peers, instead of with people more than a decade his senior.
Every Halloween we host a neighborhood party; a sort of open house the hour or so before the kids head out trick-or-treating. We started doing it about five years ago, when Jack was four.
In the back of my mind, I thought this kind of party would give him a chance to connect with the children in the neighborhood, and maybe one day he’d tear through the house screaming and laughing with a pack of kids while the adults step out of the way, balancing a glass of wine or a cocktail, smiling and shaking their heads in amusement.
Likewise, I thought it would be good for people to get to know Jack on his own turf, in a place where he’s most comfortable and calm; his home. If nothing else, I’d hoped he would make a few acquaintances.
In my own way, I guess I was trying to solve his party problem.
And every year Jack goes crazy with this party. He starts planning the menu of treats in August and writes elaborate lists of ingredients after poring over holiday-themed cookbooks. He makes playlists and burns CD’s. For weeks he arranges and rearranges and arranges again each decoration, right down to the last sparkly orange pumpkin and the handmade welcome sign he made for the door.
It is both heartbreaking and beautiful to watch.
But the party itself agitates him. As soon as people ring the doorbell, he scurries upstairs to the playroom or our bedroom, until Joe and I glance at each other, eyebrows raised—our unspoken message of where’s Jack? Then one of us makes our way around the house and finds him and in the name of conquering autism, drags him downstairs to at least say hello.
He checks the mailbox for the costume catalogue and spends days choosing just the right one, but at the last minute he refuses to wear it, and he never goes trick-or-treating through the darkened neighborhood with the other kids.
One year, just before the guests arrived, he asked me what time the party was going to end. I told him around six, and at exactly 5:59, he rushed downstairs, threw open the front door and screamed, “Get out NOW! This party IS OVER.”
Watching my socially stifled son plan our annual Halloween party is kind of like watching a diabetic painstakingly frost a cake he can’t taste, or a dancer lace up her ballet shoes even though stage fright means she won’t perform once the heavy velvet curtains lift.
It is autism’s delicate balance of I can’t and I won’t. And it makes my heart ache.
So, you might ask, why does he love these parties if they clearly make him so uncomfortable? Why does he drag out the calendar in late summer to check the date, are we having the party this year and can we make two CD’s instead of one?
And I might answer you that I do not know.
But deep in my heart I think I do know. I think behind the carefully crafted menu of spider-shaped pretzels and mummy hotdogs, behind the compilations of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the Monster Mash, my son desperately wants to be part of the fun.
He wants to party.
Underneath the demands for Just Dance and football is stupid, I think he longs for friendship. Maybe not with kids his own age, maybe not with the boys down the street or the group on the playground, but with someone who will value his quirks and make room for his bossiness and not judge when he needs to control the radio. He wants to belong.
And in the end, isn’t that what we all want?
About two weeks ago I was making breakfast on a Saturday, and around a mouthful of pancakes Jack informed me he wanted to take the bus to karate after school on Halloween.
“Really? Why?” I asked him. “That’s the day of our party. Aren’t you going to help me set up?”
“No. Karate is having a costume party.Miss Jenn will be there. I need to be there.”
So we agreed to let him go. And this year, on October 31st, Jack laced up his Minion costume and ate sweet treats and just danced at the karate studio, with his dear friend Miss Jenn.
Maybe he is finding his place after all. Maybe his place will never really be at laser tag or carnival parties or skating rinks with a crowd of kids racing around. Maybe–just maybe–he is solving the party dilemma himself.
He is figuring out where he belongs.