Small Wins at a Birthday Party


Today, let’s talk about small wins.

You know what I mean.  Those things that may not mean much to another parent, but to you, they’re priceless.  Small wins, big deals. (Like your kids not being on fire.)

Today, my daughter Lina went to a birthday party for a boy she knows from her therapy center.  Let’s call him Jason.  We got the invitation a month ago, which means this mom (“Cindy”) is on top of her *stuff*.  Cindy and I had never officially met, thanks to Covid – drop-off and pick-up happens curbside and parents never get to mingle in person.  But Cindy was determined.  She asked the center if she could get names and numbers for some of the kids her son spends time with.  Of course, with HIPAA, the center then had to ask me if they had permission to share the information.  Luckily I’m not the paranoid type–or maybe I am, but I was lured in nonetheless with the promise of a social event.  I said sure.  Shortly after, we received an awesome garbage truck-themed invitation to an indoor playground.  I told Cindy we’d be happy to join.

Then I panicked.  WHAT HAD I AGREED TO DO?  Take my autistic four-year-old to an unfamiliar place full of people she doesn’t know?  30 minutes from home with no quick escape?  Full of unknown parents who might judge us if something goes wrong?  WHAT HAD I DONE?

The logical half of my brain proceeded to battle with the emotional side.

Logical: She could have a great time!

Emotional: Or it could be awful.

Logical: She loves playgrounds!

Emotional: When she doesn’t hate them.

Logical: It’s a chance to meet another mom friend!

Emotional: She’ll probably think I’m lame.

Logical: We might as well give it a chance.

Emotional: [Cries into a pillow.]

The morning of the party dawned bright and beautiful, with the first hint of fall to arrive in Houston—the first of a few small wins for the day.  Anxious but resolute, I packed a diaper bag while trying to anticipate every catastrophe: change of outfit, wipes, chewy tube, iPad with her AAC app, masks, snacks, snacks, and more snacks.  I wasn’t sure if the party involved lunch, but since Lina can be hit-or-miss on pretty much any food, I wanted to be sure we had safe options available.  Then, I told Lina we were going for a nice long car ride, followed by a party for her friend Jason’s birthday.  I’m not sure she understood the “party” bit, but the girl is always up for a drive.  She hopped into her car seat with a big smile and positive outlook.  I could learn something from her.  I was dry-heaving with nerves.

We arrived only a few minutes late—not bad at all by parent/toddler standards.  The indoor playground was clean and colorful, with a crew of children already climbing up ladders and sliding into ball pits.  It looked entirely in Lina’s wheelhouse…that is, if I could get her to enter. A small gate separated us from the play structure, and Lina stood stock-still, suspicious about the whole situation.

Jason’s mom met us at the gate.  “Lina!  I’m so happy you’re here!” Cindy said.  “And Anne, it’s so good to meet you!”  She was warm and talkative.  She was also perceptive, noticing Lina’s uncertainty.

“Is it the music?” Cindy asked me, referring to the kid bopz playing overhead.  “We can turn it off.”

I wasn’t sure, because Lina has had sporadic but unpredictable noise sensitivities to music — but the fact that Cindy asked was a very good sign for our potential relationship.  “Sometimes music bothers her, but not always.  She’ll probably be okay once she gets inside.”

I tried to coax Lina a few steps forward.  She shook her head, backing away, the pigtails I carefully styled for the party bouncing back and forth.  Cindy understood perfectly.  “Sometimes Jason has trouble at new places, too.  Take your time.”

I felt a wave of gratitude to be around a parent who gets it – someone walking in similar shoes as me.  Not the same shoes, since every kid and every family is different, whether autism is involved or not.  But similar – maybe I’m in Converse and she’s in Vans.  Parents of neurotypical kids certainly can be empathetic and supportive, but they’re wearing something quite different, like Crocs or flip-flops.  It’s not that I want to switch out my Converse for a different pair, but it’s refreshing to be around someone with footwear like mine.

Okay, I think I’ve taken that shoe analogy as far as I can.  What I’m trying to say is that I felt no confusion or judgment from Jason’s mom, because she knew exactly what was going on.  And that allowed me to relax a little bit.  Lina may have felt it as well, because after a long pause, I was able to encourage her to enter the play area.

Once inside, there was no shade of hesitation in her steps.  Instead, she immediately found a game that involved a projector beaming images of balls onto the floor, which somehow tracked the kids’ movements and responded by “rolling” the “balls” when they were “kicked.”  Lina was in heaven.  Balls!  Running and jumping!  A game that was basically like screen time, but live! 

While Lina played, I got to chat with Jason’s mom.  Most of the kids at the party were neurotypical, but she had thought it was important to invite kids who spend time with her son during therapy.  I couldn’t agree more.  Lina doesn’t have the social crew that another four-year-old child might, but she is extremely interested in other kids.  I tried to balance expressing my gratitude and eagerness for future playdates with not appearing like a lunatic stalker.  I think I toed the line.

The afternoon only got better from there.  Lina discovered slides, a ball pit, ladders, and a trampoline.  She gamely tried almost all of it, while I encouraged her but generally followed behind in her wake.  She had a blast.

At the top, a preschool aged girl with pink pants and pigtails gets ready to slide in an indoor playground.  The text reads, "My daughter enjoying a birthday party."  Below that, a thirty-something mom with long brown hair and a manic smile sits in a ball pit, her hands stretched dramatically in the air.  The caption reads, "Me being way too excited about my daughter enjoying a birthday party."

The best part of the party came at lunch time.  The parents of the birthday boy had provided Chik-Fil-A chicken nuggets and fries for the kids, plus juice boxes and some fruit trays.  I prepared myself for total rejection, but fired up her Proloquo2Go anyway, hoping Lina could tell me if she was interested in trying any foods.  The waffle fries would be new.  She had never eaten a chicken nugget, in spite of occasional offers.  Juice was always a hard pass.  Fruit was often ignored as well.

I took comfort knowing a couple of Lina’s preferred foods — PB&J and peanut butter crackers — were in my giant mom bag, if needed, but I wanted to give Lina an opportunity to try some new items.  I cut up a few pieces of fry and chicken nuggets, offering them to her on an unfamiliar plate, with an unfamiliar fork, surrounding by noisy, unfamiliar children, with unfamiliar music blasting in the background.  She took the fork—a different color, size, and sharpness than usual–and tried a fry.  She chewed and swallowed.  And then she stabbed a chicken nugget and bit into it with gusto.

A smiling girl about four years old with brown hair and a colorful, beaded necklace holds a chicken nugget.  The caption reads, "I don't always eat chicken nuggets.  But when I do, it's right after my mom has just told someone, "She doesn't eat chicken nuggets."

I fell off my chair.  She ate more nugget.  I climbed back on my chair for the sole purpose of falling off again, heart bursting with pride the way only a parent’s can.  By the end of lunch, she was requesting blueberries from the fruit tray.  With all the excitement, I managed to eat about two bites of my own sandwich, but I didn’t care.  Lina had tried almost everything available to her, proving, once again, that she could blow past my hesitant, anxious expectations like a cheetah overtaking my lazy, overfed housecat.

We took a break from eating to go play some more, then returned for cake.  By this time, I had no doubt Lina was ready to indulge.  Sure enough, when presented with a slice of vanilla topped with green frosting, she dug in.  With a single movement of her fork, she speared half the cake and brought it to her mouth, chomping with delight.  It was only with difficulty that I convinced her to lower the slice and allow me to cut it into slightly more manageable bites. A few minutes later, the girl who always refuses to taste juice grabbed the juice box of another child and tried to take a sip.  (Of course, when I got Lina her very own juice box, she was no longer interested. Small wins nonetheless.)

Over two hours flew by, with the greatest disaster being the loss of Lina’s sock in a foam pit.  (I momentarily attempted to retrieve it before realizing the pit was bottomless and I may not return to surface.  Lina didn’t mind whatsoever.)  With reluctance, I decided it was time to leave on a high note.  I hugged Cindy and promised we would be in touch.  When I thanked her for inviting us, it was said with a sincerity I didn’t typically feel at the end of a party, when my introverted self was often ready for a nap.  I mean, sure, I was exhausted, but only from my own anxieties which had come to nothing in the end.  The day itself had been a rousing success. 

A parent of a typical kid may not think it’s a big deal that Lina enjoyed a birthday party and ate chicken nuggets.  But for us in the Converse and the Vans, those small wins can be the ones that mean the most.

I was grateful to be there, proud of Lina, and delirious with hunger.  

I forgot to mention that Lina had eaten my cake as well as her own.

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