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Birthdays matter. They pop up in fiction all the time, because they’re shorthand for “here’s a celebration and reminder of who this person is.” Most kids like thinking about birthday parties, even ones not their own, and it’s not just cake and games: they like celebrating their friends (and themselves) and reminding their friends (and themselves) who they are.

But what if you don’t know it’s your birthday? Doesn’t that suggest that you can’t celebrate yourself or remind yourself who you are?

Parents of severely autistic kids, like mine, may not have thought about it in precisely these terms, but on some level they think: why bother when the kid doesn’t even notice? Let me tell you, that cloud hovers over many, many other parts of our lives.

I don’t judge. I understand why some parents refuse to even go through the motions, especially parents of severely autistic kids who don’t have any siblings.

In our case, at this point, we feel that Dar’s brother would be disappointed if we didn’t give Dar a party. We don’t want to send him the wrong signal, so…we brought him in on the planning for Dar’s 8th birthday. We asked for his input on decorations, activities, food, cake flavor. As for gifts, Dar can’t be made to care about them or open them, so Dar’s brother gets that job too.

It’s almost like Dar’s brother gets a second birthday, which I thought might somehow take a bit of the sting out of Dar’s obliviousness. But in retrospect, Dar’s brother’s participation served to remind us how much of life Dar is missing and will always be missing.

Dar has no friends. You might say, well, birthday parties in October are hard because the kids in the classroom don’t yet know each other. Yeah, I sincerely doubt Dar would have more guests if the party were held in May. Dar wasn’t invited to any birthday parties last year by anyone from his first grade class, and I doubt he’ll be invited to any from anyone in his second grade class. The time of parents “inviting the whole class” has passed. Dar has one autistic friend, David, from his time in Berkeley’s Special-Needs Pre-School, and thank God his parents still keep up the connection (and bring David’s sister, who is Dar’s brother’s age). Other than David, we reach out to everyone we know with a kid who’s within a year or so of Dar’s age, but they’re usually busy, and I don’t blame them – they’re probably letting their kids guide them, and despite previous play dates their kids have absolutely no connection to Dar, no reason to say “oh I want to see Dar again!” Two of them showed up this year in spite of that, and one of Dar’s brother’s friends also came (we wanted Dar’s brother to have his own fun that day), bringing the total kid count at the party (including our two) to, uh, six.

Dar doesn’t care if kids sing to him. At the party, he screamed when they did, not because he hates singing, but because we were suddenly asking him to be in our dining room. He has been going through a phase at home where he only wants to be in one of four places: inside our car, in the bath, at the sink, or in the backyard playing with the hose. He screamed because for the moment of the “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…” we wouldn’t let him be in any of those four places. You’ve never seen an 8-year-old react worse to being presented with a candle-lit chocolate cake. It’s so depressing that I can’t even post the video here.

You might say: if that’s how he is in the house, did it occur to you to have the birthday in a park? Yeah, it occurred to us. Ever hear of the Atlas Fire? Dar’s party (and actual birthday) was on Sunday, October 15, two days after everyone in Berkeley was walking around with masks. If we’d sent word that we were going to have it in a park, I can only assume no one would have come.

The Atlas Fire is also why we decided not to over-complicate things by sending cupcakes to school and forcing the class to recognize his birthday on the Friday or the Monday. As I say, he doesn’t care about people singing to him. I suppose the silver lining of this is: hey, Dar doesn’t feel sadness over trivia the way some kids do.

I know I should take cues from him, but I’m not sure how to lose this feeling of sadness over the fact that my kid doesn’t even know it’s his birthday. Maybe we don’t have a party next year, maybe that will help. But maybe it won’t.

When you’re looking at smoke from the Atlas Fire, it’s sometimes hard to see the silver lining.

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