April 28, 2021

At my sixth or seventh birthday party, while opening gifts, a hilarious coincidence happened – or so it seemed, to little me.

The first gift I opened was something I already owned. Then, when I opened the second gift, it was also something I already owned.

I began to laugh. I laughed and laughed, doubling over with incredulity at the mathematical improbability of what had just happened. With my limited possessions, and the infinite possibilities for gifts, it just seemed too funny to be true.

Apparently, my guests didn’t see it that way. Apparently, they were hurt by my reaction, thinking I was laughing at them.

I don’t remember how I learned that. Maybe the gift givers said so, or maybe my parents told me later. What stands out in my memory is that I did something inappropriate, without meaning to, and someone suffered as a result.

What also stuck in my memory was the need to behave graciously at birthday parties, in order to make guests feel good. In most cases I believe that’s a worthy goal, but it’s also a lot of pressure.

Over the years, my mom has put tremendous effort into creating fun birthday experiences for me. In recent years, that has included honoring my wishes for autistic accommodations such as “unsurprising cake” – asking if I’m ready for it, instead of suddenly interrupting my conversation with song.

But this year, I realized that I can’t think of any tweaks to tradition that would make my birthday thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable. Birthdays, to me, just feel inherently fraught with the danger of doing something wrong.

So I asked for something unusual. I asked if I could skip this year, and treat my birthday like any other day – nothing to attend, nothing to react to. My sweet parents willingly agreed, hinting that they might secretly celebrate my existence just between the two of them.

It was the best possible gift.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.