I didn’t have too many big birthday parties growing up. Most years we just went out to eat at the place of my choice- and I usually chose Pizza Hut. Of course, in the eighties Pizza Huts were a little fancier. The pizzas cost more, and you actually ate inside the restaurant. Every Sunday my dad’s side of the family got together at my great-grandma’s house, so there would always be cake and ice cream that week, and I would get some cash. I usually shared this party with my older brother, whose birthday is just four days before mine.
I also shared my birthday with a boy who lived down the street named Chad. His brother, Paco, was a good friend in my early years. My brother and I used to spend a lot of time at Paco and Chad’s house. One year I remember us celebrating our birthdays together at The High Wheeler (a now-extinct Kalamazoo ice cream parlor). That was kind of exciting, and I bet we still went out for Pizza that year.
But speaking of extinct Kalamazoo landmarks, there was one birthday party that stands out. My seventh birthday was spent at Star World. It was 1983, and Star World was a very popular arcade. And, if you held your birthday party there they would wish you a happy birthday on their sign! Although I am sure we took a picture of it, I have not seen those Star World birthday pictures in a very long time. For being the guest of honor, you received twenty free tokens (all of which were spent on Skee Ball). There was pizza, a children’s play area, and some guy making balloon animals. A six year old’s dream come true.
In the early eighties I attended quite a few birthday parties at Star World. I couldn’t wait to go. But Star World is long gone, and I hardly put much thought into children’s birthday parties anymore.
Teghan is turning five on Saturday. How is that possible? I don’t mind not planning a big party for her. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a big party every year, but it just doesn’t matter. I mostly want to have good food. We will probably order pizza, and Dave will make a cake. Maybe my parents will want to come over…. I don’t require much. Teghan requires nothing, but she always enjoys pizza and cake.
I do wish that she knew it was her birthday, though. I try explaining it every way possible, but I am not sure it makes any sense to her. Who knows? Maybe it does. Sometimes she looks at me and smiles. Does that mean she understands, or does it just mean she thinks my tone of voice is funny? Could go either way.
That’s the constant battle around here that is so hard to explain to others. She doesn’t talk. Sure, she will follow some basic directions. So does the cat. (I am not comparing her to the cat, but the current communication parallels don’t go unnoticed.) Sometimes I think people envision her not talking as if she were deaf. I am always being asked if we use sign language. The thing is, she has gotten really good at getting what she wants. She will even use single words to say what she wants. That kind of basic communication is finally going well for us.
We’re past all that.
And I am so thankful that Teghan is affectionate, even if it is fleeting. Yes, sometimes she won’t come near us. If you ask for a hug, she will do it- but quickly, and possibly with tears. But other times she will sit on my lap for an hour, resting her head on my shoulder. The other night when we put her to bed, she got up one last time just to hug me. I am not sure she has ever done that before. But on her more affectionate days, she will gladly offer her cheek (or forehead) for kisses, and give hugs on command without protest. This morning she jumped into our bed and petted my arm for five whole minutes while meowing.
That’s new. And it’s a form of communication the cat will never be able to accomplish (ironically).
But her communication does not go beyond the basics. A year ago we didn’t even have that, so I am not complaining. Now she understands everything familiar. We can tell her what is happening next, and she gets it. She knows what we mean when we say that we are going to the store, someone is coming over, I am going to work, she is taking a bath, etc. When we say “it’s bedtime” she always says “teeth?” because she loves brushing her teeth before bed. Really, she loves sucking on the training toothpaste (because toothpaste apparently is the only thing she is unwilling to spit out). She still gets a lot of basic instruction wrong, too. But we’re working on it.
Her achievements in receptive language keep me hopeful. Expressive language is also coming along these last few months. She is obsessed with the alphabet, and she will attempt to repeat anything you ask her to. If we say, “I want….” she will complete the sentence for us- usually with the word cookie, pancake, or coffee (she really likes coffee). But again, we are just using communication that gets us through our daily tasks. Nothing deeper. And that’s what is hard to express to others who aren’t familiar with autism.
Concepts are lost on her. There is no reasoning. She doesn’t know it’s her birthday, she doesn’t understand what Christmas is, and she still can’t figure out why we can’t just pull the food out of the oven and eat it right now. There is no way to explain these things to her (yet). And that is the hardest part of our lives right now- the fact that we cannot share ideas and thoughts with our five year old. We have no clue what she thinks about, and she has no way of understanding even a fraction of what other five year olds already know. We do not have conversations at all, about anything. She doesn’t even understand what conversation is.
I just ramble on to her about concepts like time, money, jobs, astronomy, family…. She laughed really hard when I showed her a picture of my parents and told her who they were to me. Did it make sense? I just hope for the best. There was no reaction at all when I tried to explain who my sister was, or how that baby who hangs around my sister is her cousin.
And you know what? It is exceptionally hard to explain these simple concepts without verbal feedback. It’s surprising. Try explaining the days of the week to a newborn. It makes you feel crazy, like maybe you don’t even get it. Without anyone clarifying which part of it they understand and asking questions- you sound like an idiot. Maybe Teghan does understand, and that’s why she is laughing at me.
It’s alright. It’s just difficult to put into words for others. I look at all of her accomplishments in communication over the past year, and I am hopeful that one day she will be excited for the month of December. She will understand, and maybe she will even be able to tell us what she wants for her birthday or for Christmas. This year she might even figure out how to open a present. I’m feeling a little excited at the prospect, but I won’t hold my breath.
In the meantime, we will be content with keeping traditions alive and putting all our extra efforts into eating well. She might not be thrilled for her birthday, but we sure are. Our little girl is turning five! I’m feeling so festive for her, I might even let her have a cup of coffee with her cake.