Have you ever seen a sad viral post on social media about a special-needs child who throws a birthday party and no one shows up?
I’m sure you have. I’ve seen several. One post had a photo of a teenager at Chuck E. Cheese, sitting alone at a party table set for a dozen, a whole cake in front of her. Another post came with a happy ending: After a mom posted on-line that her son’s birthday party was happening with no attendees, the local fire department brought their truck right over to make the boy’s day special.
That happy ending notwithstanding, parties without any guests are terrible, both for the child’s self-esteem, and for how they reflect on community values.
What I am about to write is not intended to blame parents or caregivers for birthday-party failures. No parent should have to undertake the measures I am about to describe. These are actions that I choose because (1) Martin is fragile and socially awkward, and (2) many families either don’t understand or don’t care what it means when they RSVP “yes” to a special-needs child’s birthday.
To his ninth-birthday party, last year, Martin invited eight typically developing kids and a dozen with special needs. Of the eight typically developing kids, despite responding yes to the invitation and again to my follow-up email, four did not come. The mother of two of the no-shows said later that the family had “ended up going to visit an aunt and stayed longer than expected,” or some similar excuse. The mother of another, when I asked, texted me vaguely that her son had a stomachache. The parents of the remaining boy never said a word about his absence. Of the four typically developing kids who did attend, three were the children of family friends, and one was a boy who, despite being more or less typical, has some mild cognitive challenges and immaturity.
Of the dozen special-needs kids invited, all came, no follow-up necessary. When you are the parent of a special-needs child, you cherish every invitation, and you know what it means when your child is expecting a friend who fails to arrive.
Before we left the States, this year, we held Martin’s 10th-birthday party at our home. This was the first time the invitees to his party have been majority typically developing instead of majority special needs. In fact, Martin had such a good school year that he wanted to invite every kid in his class, 22 kids plus himself, including a lot of kids whose parents I really don’t know. He also wanted to invite a half dozen typically developing kids from his taekwondo dojang. In addition to that list, he wanted to invite the kids from his social-skills playgroups, and a few from his former school, which was self-contained special education.
I was relentless in seeking RSVP’s. Relentless. I began by sending every family an email to say that their child would be receiving an email by U.S. Post. The invitations were mailed six weeks before the party. After the nominal “RSVP by” date passed—by which time only special-needs parents had responded—I started the follow-up emails. (I remember the mother in one of the social-media posts referenced above saying something like, “No one responded to say they weren’t coming, so I figured they were.” That will not do.) For parents who were unsure, I followed up again. And again. Not in a way that would pressure anyone to attend: it was more like, “Trying to get an accurate count for food,” and that sort of thing. For parents who did not respond or who had no email, I found phone numbers. To contact parents with limited English (our area has a large Spanish-speaking population), I dispatched Adrian. If a child wanted to come but had no ride, we offered to pick him/her up.
By the week before the party, I felt I had a solid count of who would attend, or as solid as possible. Nevertheless, if asked by Martin, I avoided speaking in definite terms. Instead of, “Ben is coming,” I said, “Ben’s parents say they think he will probably be able to come.” I saw no point in building up Martin’s expectations if any chance existed that they would not be fulfilled.
The party was held the last day of school, after the kids’ early dismissal. We ended up with a no-holds-barred, over-the-top, supersized fiesta. There were two professional lifeguards, one stationed at each end of the swimming pool. Four dozen foam water cannons were lying around the pool deck. Our recently acquired 14-foot trampoline was open for business. The local Ralph’s Italian Ices franchise sent a festive umbrella/freezer cart, packed with flavors selected by Martin, and a uniformed employee to scoop unlimited servings. (Martin does not usually get to eat Ralph’s Italian Ices. This was a birthday treat he finagled, as follows: “Mommy, can we have Ralph’s Italian Ices at my birthday party? I already told everyone that we would.”) My brother Eddie manned the grill, flipping hamburgers, turkey burgers, and veggie burgers onto gluten-free buns. I hired teenage assistants, whose job was to run around cleaning up paper plates, serve food, and occupy any party-goers who looked forlorn or left out. The birthday cake was decadent and sprinkle-covered, prepared by a gluten-, nut-, and dairy-free bakery.
And 42 kids attended. Forty-two kids, all friends/classmates of Martin (and some siblings tagging along by permission). Seventeen of Martin’s 22 classmates came. Every kid on my final list actually showed up. Martin was in his glory. I had talked to him beforehand about retreating into the house for a short time if he felt overwhelmed during the party. Unnecessary. He spent the entire three hours outside in the yard, having fun. And then, when the father of two guests failed to pick them up as scheduled, Martin calmly invited them to play Xbox and spent an hour on the sofa.
Bringing the event together took hours upon hours of work, plus more funds than I ever intended to spend on a birthday party. In the end, Adrian and I got exactly the type of day we hoped to give Martin, to crown a school year of remarkable social advancement.
Although Martin’s Friday-afternoon birthday party was likely the highpoint of his weekend, it was not the highpoint of mine. Martin had two other birthday parties to attend that weekend. (Parents whose kids have summer birthdays tend to squeeze the parties into the last couple weeks of school.) Saturday afternoon, Adrian took Martin to a movie-theater party held by a friend from social-skills playgroup. Martin sat next to another boy from the same playgroup and watched Jurrasic World without incident. Sunday morning, I did not want to miss church, and Adrian had left town on a business trip, so Eddie took Martin to the birthday party of a classmate (!) at an indoor sports facility. They arrived 10 minutes late, and the kids were already organized into groups for a game. According to Eddie, as soon as he and Martin entered the facility, a boy yelled, “Hi, Martin!” and another yelled, “Come join our team!”
Hearing that report, dear readers, was the highlight of my weekend.