Lucas’s birthday is coming up and I’m pretty excited. Sadly, I have to admit that hasn’t always been the case. For parents of a child with special needs, early birthdays can be both confusing and painful. We were no exception.
Early on, everything is still new. Even if you’re given a diagnosis of autism or something similar, it’s presented as a “wait and see” scenario. You’re told to hope for the best and that nothing is out of reach. All the experts urge you to stay positive and anticipate all the milestones that are on the horizon. Walking, talking, and other major moments are just around the corner…until you turn them and see that they’re not.
Because of this, you have no choice but to hold your child to the same standards as another his or her age. He’s two? You do things that two year olds do. We did. We threw a big toddler party at a gymnastics place and invited many of his older sister’s friends. After all, Olivia had her second birthday at a gymnastics place. That’s what two year olds do, right? What two year old wouldn’t like a party like that?
Lucas. Lucas was the type of two year old who wouldn’t like a party like that. I remember watching in confusion as he wandered off from all the organized activities to play with various foam pieces or run around aimlessly. Although it was killing me inside, I told my wife that it was his birthday so we should just let him do what he wanted. That’s what we did. He seemed to enjoy himself to an extent. Us – not so much.
After watching everyone else’s children play games, we all funneled into a smaller room for cake. That’s when an older boy began to annoy his mother. She was one of those moms with a voice that rattled your spine and felt it was appropriate to yell at her kid no matter where she was. I’m not sure what triggered it, but out of nowhere, she screamed.
“Stop it! This party is about Lucas!”
The kid screamed back in a voice identical to his mother, only younger.
Lucas doesn’t even talk!
I wish I could say that everything stopped and everyone stared in disbelief, but that didn’t happen. There wasn’t enough time. Just as sudden and even louder, she bellowed back.
“Well then why don’t you teach him!?”
I knew at that moment that this party had been a monumental error. It wasn’t what Lucas wanted. It wasn’t what we wanted. At most, it was what this screaming mother/son combination wanted and even that I wasn’t sure of. At the end of the day, we were chasing a milestone and trying to force a memory that we felt was right simply because of his age.
As he grew, birthdays became somewhat easier, but not by much. I’d find myself blowing past time limits that I had put into my own head. Surely he’d talk by three. When three came and went, it was surely four. After four, I waited for five. It was a never ending cycle of “everything will be different next year.”
Approaching six later this month, I can say that everything is different, but not because he speaks. He doesn’t. It’s different because I realize now that the hopes and wishes I had in years past were based on what I believed was “normal”. For my son, and every other child though, milestones don’t always coincide with what you read online or in a book. When you start to focus on all the things that haven’t happened yet, you lose sight of all the things that have.
One of his teachers told me a long time ago to keep a mental list of what Lucas does at the start of the school year and go back to it in June. Only then will you see his true progress. It’s easy to look at all the major moments that haven’t happened while losing sight of all the smaller ones that have. You can cry in your birthday cake over the fact that your child still isn’t speaking, but miss the fact that he’s now tapping you on the shoulder to get your attention or sitting quietly at the table to eat.
Don’t let anyone tell you what your milestones are. Everyone deserves to celebrate their child and applaud the advances they make. You can blow out the candles and wish for a laundry list of advancements that might never materialize. While doing so, you’ll miss out on a whole other list that has.
So yeah, I’m looking forward to his birthday this year. Not because of the things he might do, but because it’s his birthday and I love him. I still might make a silent wish when I help him blow out his candles, but it’s not attached to a time limit anymore. The only thing I’m hoping for when he turns seven is that we’ll all get to celebrate it together again. That’s the only thing that matters.