Birthday parties, Pinatas, and Expectations

I’m not sure if I’m making a big deal about something insignificant, but my gut says this is important – that it’s a “minor” illustration of an important thought process my autistic son has, and that I need to help him work through to navigate through these situations in the future.

Birthday parties when you’re 2, 3, 4, even 5 years old are pretty free flowing. Kids play, run around, have fun. So far, the parties we’ve been to (maybe between 5-10 in the last 3 years) have all been “destination” parties – the park, the bounce place, McDonalds, etc. Pretty much free reign, run-around, no “party games” – no real “rules” – just have fun and don’t knock anybody over on purpose. My son is a sensory seeker – he craves input rather than trying to avoid it. He isn’t bothered by clothing, noises, hugs, He LOVES amusement parks, water parks, fireworks, squeezy hugs, has no problems at restaurants. Generally birthday parties are absolutely NO problem. At least, they they haven’t been.

DS is 6 years old now, and parties are a little bit less free-flowing. There are party games, with rules and expectations. Mommy didn’t think about this. It never crossed my mind that we would need to go over what else happens at a “big kid” party. I don’t remember “learning” how to play party games. When I was a kid, I just did them – I went with the flow, played to have fun because that was the point. That’s how it went for all of the other NT kids (ages 3-6) when it was time to do the pinata.

DS wanted to check out the pinata, touch it (of course-sensory seeking) – not BREAK it, but investigate it. The 8 year old sister of the birtday boy, self-appointed boss, told him to get away and that he couldn’t do it. Which he heard as “you can’t do the pinata – AT ALL”. And the downward spiral of heart-wrenching sadness began. I was able to help him calm down, and he was excited to play again. But then they lined the kids up by height, so even though he may have gotten to the line early, he was sent to the end because he’s so tall. More sad piled on, but he calmed a little.

Then it was his turn, and he was excited. Put on the blindfold (I didn’t think about the effect of that either – he didn’t like it but couldn’t tell me about it at the time), and swung. He hit the pinata, but didn’t break it. And he fell apart. Because he didn’t break it, he wasn’t the strongest, he didn’t do it right, like he was SUPPOSED to.

I didn’t realize that he had built up such expectations around the “rules” of these types of games. He didn’t understand that it was just a game, that everyone was having the same experience – that NO ONE ELSE was breaking the pinata either – that the swinging and the thwacking of the pinata were supposed to be fun by themselves. That didn’t matter or wasn’t clear. All DS knew was HE was supposed to break it. He didn’t – he screwed up – he did it wrong – and it all fell apart around that game for him because of that. It was even worse when, on the 3rd try for everyone, the girl in front of him knocked down the pinata so he didn’t get to try again. Luckily, I swooped in and got a handful of candy for him.

I wanted to help him, I wanted him to have fun, and that fell apart completely. I was also embarrassed. And I felt bad for being embarrased. I KNEW better, I knew he was upset for a reason that made sense, and not being a spoiled brat. But that doesn’t help when your kid is losing it at a party for no apparent reason. But then another mom (who battles dyslexia herself, and who has a nephew with autism) helped me find my strength and get past that. Having someone else “get it” helps SO MUCH!

I was able to do a little advocating/educating later in the evening when a comment or two popped up about his meltdown – how his brain works, why his upset made sense, how I kinda dropped the ball, how there’s another perspective to what one might be seeing in an upset child.

Happily, DS is SO resiliant. He was able to calm down and talk to me a bit about why he was so sad. I did my best to explain what games were about, and  tried figure out what went wrong for him. He had a great rest of the party – it lasted for hours and he had a blast. Just that one emotionally tumultuous blip. But it really brought home how he struggles with expectations vs. reality in certain situations – how I don’t always know what his challenges/roadblocks are until they happen, and neither does he.

Generally, people play games to have fun, but the GOAL of games is to win, to score, etc. For a literally minded kid who pays attention to the rules and the goal – what you are supposed to do – NOT winning is actually a failure, or at least in my kid’s case it feels like it. I need to do some extra thinking – how do I clarify this type of thing for him?

And what about the classroom? There are lots of expectations for behavior in the classroom. He’s doing a great job this year in following directions, etc. The teacher is doing a great job understanding when he’s having a challenge vs. just being a kid. But then the self-expectations creep in, he judges himself harshly. He has a bad day, or gets corrected for a small thing after having a great day – and suddenly he’s a “bad kid” – he decides that if his behavior is not perfect, he’s not good.

I do my best to help him understand bad choices don’t make a bad person. We do our best, but no one is perfect. He needs to know that he is young, he is learning, and that what he feels in his heart is important too, as he learns to behave and make good choices. I give the example of hitting someone accidentally while playing is not the same as WANTING to hit someone, and I hope it makes sense to him. I really don’t know exactly how to explain this to him so it makes sense for a six year old!

The level of awareness I have to have about how the world works, how his brain works, is hard to maintain consistently. I feel a bit like a failure when I don’t anticipate. I’m supposed to know my kid! I’ll know a little better next time. He has words, so when I ask the right question, he can help me understand what he’s experiencing. Hopefully we’ll find the “rules” that works for him so he doesn’t tear himself down when expectations and reality don’t quite meet.

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3 thoughts on “Birthday parties, Pinatas, and Expectations

  1. Oh poor little guy! I know what it’s like to always feel that need to be perfect. Hopefully you can show him that it’s ok to be less-than-perfect too sometimes (and also be kind to yourself when you’re sometimes not yet the perfect mother you want to be). 😉

  2. Oh, I really relate to this post! My son is three and I would consider him sensory-seeking as well. He runs all over the place at parties, which of course means I socialize with NO ONE and follow him around to ensure the safety of others. 🙂 Bounce houses and pinatas are the worst! He loves them though, so I tolerate them and help the best I can. Bounce houses are tricky because the unspoken rules are, “Jump around like a maniac, but don’t jump TOO much.” Rules of the pinata, you stated well already. At a recent party, my son got upset too for similar reasons. I can only imagine how challenging parties will be when he gets a little older and more “rules” start to be applied. Thanks for sharing!

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