Yes, He Knows It’s His Birthday

For the parent of a non-verbal child, birthdays can feel like a bittersweet roller coaster of emotion. No matter the age or the calendar year, there’s a sentiment tied to it. Sometimes those sentiments are good. Sometimes they aren’t. The only constant is that they are intense.

When Lucas was a baby, birthdays were like awaiting a bad report card. I remembered all the deals I had made in my head about his talking age. “There’s nothing to worry about until he’s not talking at two…then three…then four…”

Doing that only makes these days of celebration something to dread. I didn’t like that at all. I pushed to keep myself positive and enjoy the day, but constantly worried about where he’d be and what he’d become. When your kid is tiny, you want to have definite answers about who they’ll be when they grow up. I had nothing definite other than a birthdate. Everything else was wait-and-see.

Once those days passed and we were saying “non-verbal autism” out loud, things were less stressful. This was my boy. There were no more deals and the thought of having a non-verbal child wasn’t so daunting anymore. I still pushed for him to be the best he could be, but accepted how that might not involve making verbal conversation. I know him now and I love him. Words are overrated.


There was a hanging question, however, that some relatives would hit me with now and again. They didn’t mean in a way to sting, but they often did.

Does he know it’s his birthday?

I hated this question for so many reasons. For starters, there’s the suggestion behind why it even needs to be asked. Is he smiling? Yup? Give him cake and move along.

This leads me to silently wonder how people view him since I, as his Dad, hadn’t really been thinking about that fact. Does he know? Why are they even thinking about that? Do they see a different, more out-of-touch, boy than I do which causes them to ask it?

All that aside, the worst part of that question? I had no idea if he knew or not.

The concept itself is kind of deep. Does he know it’s the day he was born? Probably not. Does he know the celebrations are all about him? Not sure.

Even deeper still, is he aware that we set certain days aside just to celebrate? In other words, does he realize that we are engaged in a celebration from morning to night or does he think “Oh, sweet. Cake. This is awesome”? Either one is feasible. Either one puts a smile on his face. For that reason, I don’t think all that deeply about it.

But I still do a little bit.

dad son autism

There were some signs that he was aware of the importance of birthday celebrations at a young age. When he was still in preschool, he attended a birthday party for a boy in his class just days after his own. It was just him and me at a Gymboree and he loved running through the squishy obstacle course. There were smiles and laughter until they sang to that other kid.

As soon as the first notes of Happy Birthday started to ring out, Lucas broke into tears. I’m not talking about crocodile whines, but genuine streaming down-the-face tears. I took him outside, confused over what had happened. After all, we were still at the age when I was making deals with the universe.

One of his preschool teachers remarked that perhaps he was jealous. I remember thinking the notion was ridiculous at the time since he rarely showed emotions tied to people on that level. Yet, it made sense. I filed it into the back of my mind.

Today, my son has made it to twelve birthdays. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about him and, unlike some previous years, I can answer some questions.

First, yes. He was probably jealous. Lucas knows the Happy Birthday song. Seeing someone else as the centerpiece for his special tune was probably sad for him at the time. Thinking back on it now can be pretty sad. Imagine being there for it. It was heartbreaking on a level like Jack sinking underwater as Rose floats away – that kind of heartbreaking.

Out of all of these observations, one reigns supreme. My proudest statement is one that you read when you clicked your way here. I can say with certainty that…yes, he knows it’s his birthday.

The Happy Birthday Song has been a really useful part of learning this. Every year, as we near closer to his birthday, I begin singing it to him in an exaggerated carnival barker voice. Every year, he reacts a bit and I know that he can sense it is special.

back to school

This year, we were sitting in his room when I started to sing it and he froze. The iPad he had been holding to his ear dropped to his side and he stared off, listening to me. As I continued, he looked over his shoulder with a smirk and made eye contact with me. Just as I was rounding out to “deeeeear Lucas”, he put his hands over his face like an anxious Jewish comedian from Brooklyn, stood up, and smiled at me with the biggest smile I had seen in a while. He then collapsed onto me with a hug.

And that’s when I knew he knew.

How do I know? I just do. Parents of non-verbal kids know what I’m saying. It’s just a feeling that any of us get when we have someone in our life that doesn’t use language. When it comes to Lucas and me, you just feel it. You just get it. A moment will pass and a glace is exchanged and you know, “Oh. Yeah. We’re on the same page.”

My son knows it’s his birthday. We know it too. Now that we can answer that question for anyone who asks, we make it great and eat some cake. He deserves it.




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