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Dar attended his first big birthday party a few weeks ago. That may sound strange, so let me clarify. We have thrown small birthday parties for him and his brother (perhaps 3 or 4 other kids plus adults). At his two years in pre-school, which was all special-needs kids, we didn’t get any invitations to parties; I doubt that the parents organized any (it’s not like they don’t have enough on their plate!). He has now been in kindergarten with 20 neurotypical kids for almost a school year, and the recent fete was, I believe, only the second time that a mom had used the class’s email list to invite everyone in the class to her kids’ party. (We had a conflict with the first such affair; I have no idea if any other organizer made an effort to exclude Dar, but I doubt it.)

Here’s what I’m saying: last month, Dar attended his first party that featured more than two of his neurotypical peers. Actually, it was probably closer to 20 or 25 “normal” kids his age. How’d it go?

First, I am so grateful to the Mom in question for inviting Dar – a thousand thanks. Second, I am awestruck by what an amazing affair it was. They rented some kind of Children’s Art Center (that may not be the name; in a way, I hope it’s not) in downtown Oakland. The main room consisted of a dozen tables, each dedicated to an art/craft: clay at one, paper and scissors at another, handprints at the next, etc. Though it was a midafternoon fiesta, and thus close to the time of siesta, there was a spread of food and drinks worthy of a Trader Joe’s aisle…in fact, the munchies were Joe’s-worthy. (I couldn’t stop eating the kettle corn, and I wasn’t alone; it kept getting replaced by more kettle corn!) This kid’s Mom thought of everything.

Kids who know Darwin never fail to amaze me when they enthusiastically say “Hi Dar__!” They know he’s not going to reply, right? And he never does, despite my prompting. “Dar you should say hi to them.” Sometimes he smiles, sometimes he doesn’t; his face rarely seems to have much to do with the person saying hi. I think he likes adults better, perhaps because he spends more time with them. With adults (including strangers at Starbucks) he will take a hand and nuzzle his face into it. I’ve never seen him do this with a fellow kid. There’s one girl in his class who dotes on him, and he does seem to enjoy her attention, but she didn’t come to this party. There, the most static I received was from one boy who had arranged some little magnets on the left side of a very large easel, and as Dar approached the other side of the easel he warned me not to let Dar touch his design. I almost said “But you know how Dar is, right?” Instead I redirected him, and it was fine; Dar is very redirectable.

I did manage to get Dar to use the paints long enough to destroy his good clothes, but more generally, Dar pushed his way through the main room to linger in the fringe spaces. There was a large staircase leading to a locked door, and Dar spent almost half the time on that staircase, sometimes watching the party, sometimes just going up and down the stairs. Picture Peter Brady at the top of the Brady Bunch house stairs when he realizes no one has come to his birthday party. If you were watching it as a movie, you’d roll your eyes at the hoary stereotype of an outsider kid. I kept asking Dar to come down, but no. And no other kids went up there; why would they, with all the play stations and food and friends right where they were? As the kids and parents gathered to sing “Happy Birthday,” I tried to pull Dar down the stairs; he wasn’t having any of it. I sang his part from the top of the stairs, standing next to him.

Dar also spent time at this other staircase that went down, underground. At least another kid showed interest in that for a second.

“Hey Mommy I want to go down there!”

Mom: “Uh, not sure that’s a good idea.”

Me: “It’s not. After you turn at the bottom of the stairs, there’s a storage room with a lot of paint chemicals.”

(Mom looks at me like “And your kid is down there why?”)

Me: “I’m watching him.” And I was. I knew Dar just wanted to go up and down the stairs and play on the handrail anyway. I had checked out the bottom, but there was almost no danger of Dar checking it out even for a half-second.

Mom: “Yeah, so, honey, let’s see what else there is here.”

Dar also spent time in this little room off of the main room which was mostly filled with Legos and Magna-tiles. And that’s fine, except there was a big sign on the door warning NO FOOD in that room. Sadly, my go-to when Dar whines is to shove food in his pie-hole, especially when it’s free and tasty. So I would pull food out of his hand as he walked into the Lego room, and his yelps indicated he wasn’t thrilled with that. I was thinking Oh God, Dar, don’t embarrass us. I was thinking Of course every other kid knows not to bring food in there. Then I noticed something. The kids were eating in there with impunity, leaving half-eaten paper plates of food strewn about the Lego-building tables! Sometimes I’m caught up short with the realization that as a 5-year-old kid, Dar is sometimes not so different from other 5-year-old kids. When these 5-year-old kids talk, they sometimes sound like they know more than they do, and Dar isn’t always as far behind them as it looks. It’s nice to have that mini-epiphany in the middle of a party where I’m worrying about Dar’s behavior.

I’m going to label this one a win, because Dar didn’t have a meltdown, and we pretty much stayed the entire time…certainly through the cupcake distribution. Yay us.

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