I'm still here!
A couple of weekends ago, 4C was invited to a birthday party at a pumpkin patch. On a beautiful fall day, I took her to the farm to hang with her besties. She was in her GLORY! She picked out Halloween clothes to wear to the party, and when she was given a cowgirl hat to wear, she was the only kid who kept it on for the whole party. Always so full of enthusiasm, that one, she didn't mind that it took FOREVER for the elderly farmer to remember to pick us up out in the pumpkin patch or that it was windy enough to blow your plate away while you were eating. We were there for almost 4 hours, and she rolled with it the whole time, having a blast just to be there.
How different things were with 4A. I DREADED birthdays with her, especially her own. During those preschool, birthday-party circuit years, I loathed the themes, the activity parties, the food, the singing, all of it. First, she'd tantrum the entire way there about going (never you mind that most kids find birthday parties FUN!). She never wanted to participate in the games or activities, and she was unable to not tantrum while they took place. She tantrumed about the "Happy Birthday" song, hands over ears while rocking and shaking her head. Such fun! Thank goodness every party had cake; at least we had that!
Her own birthday parties and those for her siblings weren't quite as bad because I could tailor activities and food and noise to what I knew would work for her. But, she still tantrumed at the singing of "Happy Birthday," and she still perseverated about the parties taking place. And, she was always socially inappropriate about receiving gifts.
Gifts are confusing for Aspies. Young toddlers, of course, want the gifts for themselves, and they may even tell you when they don't like a gift that they've received, preciously honest creatures that they are. This is, of course, adorable and one of the great joys of parenting wee ones. When a 5 or 6 y/o engages in the same behavior, it ain't so sweet.
For an Aspie, I figure gifts work a bit like this. Aspie knows what she wants to receive. Aspies ALWAYS assume that everyone else has the same knowledge that they do because they lack social reciprocity. So, in Aspie's mind, Aspie wants to receive X, and givers know that Aspie wants X. When an Aspie then opens a gift that isn't X, she's terribly confused. When that happened for my Aspie (which was almost always), she would usually tantrum, say she hated it, or throw it.
When 4A turned 4, a friend stopped by to give her some beautiful books, thoughtfully selected for 4A who loves reading and drawing. Now, in 4A's mind, a "present" was a toy. Because she's an Aspie, she assumes that every giver knows that. So, when 4A opened these beautiful books, which were not toys, she threw them and tantrumed...for TWO HOURS.
From about age 2 to age 6, I refused to let 4A open gifts at parties. Those tantrums were easier handled without other around (for me and for 4A), and birthday parties were unbearable enough as it was. Fast forward to 4A's 6th birthday party. I was overcome with pride when she thanked each and every giver for their gifts. Now, you could ABSOLUTELY tell which gifts she liked from her tone and facial expression. But, she said thank you.
How did we accomplish this, you ask? Shortly after that 4 y/o book debacle, I started using a social story EVERY SINGLE time a gift was involved. Should've done it sooner, of course, but sometimes Mommy is tired, or hopeful, or busy. Oh well. When I did start using it religiously, it worked like magic. So magical, in fact, that she was able to say thank you at her 6th birthday party, even when she wasn't actually thankful for what she received. That was a BIG deal! And, that was, I think, the first party of hers that I actually ENJOYED. She even let us sing to her and enjoyed it when we did!
Here's the story that I used about gifts. (I embellished with drawings or clip art and put mine in one of those flip-book formats that I told you about.)
Here's another social story that I use when I teach kids about autism at Differing Abilities Day at my children's school. The kids are always so intrigued by this because they themselves, neurotypicals that they are, LOVE birthday parties and can't imagine how on earth a party could ever be un-fun for a kid. Before we go through this on the white board or overhead, I first ask a child to come up. I ask her what she wants more than anything for her next birthday. She usually mentions some ridiculous, over-priced Barbie or the like. I ask her to pretend that it's her birthday, and I give her a book. She usually gives me a funny look and says "thank you." Then, I pretend that it's my birthday and that I want a doll or a truck or whatever. I ask her to hand me the book and say "happy birthday." When she does, I throw it on the floor and tantrum. After that exercise, we read through this social story about birthday parties and talk about why birthday parties are hard for kids with autism.
Once 4A hit elementary-school age, I was successful in explaining to her that most kids think birthday parties are fun because there are games and snacks and cake. If 4A doesn't think that's fun, that's okay. She can always pretend. Or, she can just not go. Or, she can stay quiet. Doesn't really matter. But, what she may NOT do is tantrum.
These social stories, permission to pretend about her enjoyment, and a super-stellar behavioral plan from the most amazing behavioral psych in the free world made birthday parties doable and, arguably, enjoyable. I wish the same for you, my friend.