“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” —Dr. Seuss, Happy Birthday to You!
My dearest Hannah,
Happy 12th birthday, sweetheart! I don’t know why twelve has hit me so hard, but it sure has thrown me for a loop. After rousting you out of bed this morning, you declared that this party would be your best yet! When I questioned you why, you responded, “This year I have lots of friends. So, it feels different. You normally invite some kids from my class and your friends’ kids. But, this year, it was my list.” And, Hannah, you are right.
I couldn’t be happier for you. Friendships have never been easy for you to navigate due to your autism, so today you have reminded me that we need to recognize and celebrate your progress at twelve years of age.
Looking back, I remember you didn’t talk until you were three-and-a-half. Then you used lots of gibberish and echolalia. In kindergarten, scripted conversation allowed you to engage more with your peers. I think about how many social, play, and friendship groups provided opportunities to interact with others with supports. And, I’m certain you don’t want to add up the years of speech therapy. I know I don’t.
You have found a cohort of peers that accept you, understand you, and guide you. Some are more patient with you than I am!
As your math and science teacher, I am blessed to be privy to these interactions on a daily basis. Let me tell you what I see, Hannah. Kids don’t mind if you sit by them in class or in the cafeteria. Your friends often give you prompts in class, like, clear off your desk, get out your laptop, or write down your assignment. If you are having a difficult time understanding a math problem presented on the board, another student in your group will explain it to you in a different way. Your classmates also entertain your affinity for cats. At recess, you pop around from group to group trying to fit in with more than one set of friends. This fortitude is admirable.
It has taken me many years to get your birthdays right! For your fourth birthday, we walked into Chuck E Cheese’s ready to celebrate. Only minutes after walking through the doors and getting our hands stamped, you started screaming and covering your ears. Everyone who had come for the party remembered your words: “It hurts! It hurts!” So, we packed everything up again, drove home, and celebrated in the comfort of our own home, where it didn’t hurt.
We went to Incredible Pizza to celebrate your eighth birthday. You were so excited to race your friends with the go-karts, but you were inconsolable when a friend passed you on the raceway to take the checkered flag. Then, when all of your friends won a prize in the giant claw machine, and you didn’t, I thought a meltdown was inevitable. However, an employee noticed your distress and was kind enough to open the machine and give you a prize. Crisis averted.
After beginning this letter, I discovered why your birthday has been so hard on me this year. Time is running out before you are an adult. I have high hopes you will be attending college and living independently in the fall of 2023. That’s only six years from now. So much of the outside world baffles you—how can I expect you to learn all you need to know in this short span of time? How can I ensure you gain the life skills needed to navigate it? I wish I could make life stand perfectly still. But, time stands still for no one—not even those with autism.
About a month ago, you asked if you always need to make sure that people you come into contact with need to know that you have autism. “It’s up to you,” I said. You can tell them as little or as much as you deem comfortable. However, you must always advocate for what you believe you need to be successful. I said it’s also your decision whether or not you spread awareness and advocate for others. At the end of the conversation, you proudly declared that you would always be transparent when it comes to your autism.
Every year, I see you understand your autism more and more. Just remember, autism doesn’t define you, nor is it a layer that needs to be shed. Autism makes you uniquely you!
So, at the end of the day on your twelfth birthday, I’m confirming that this was the best birthday party yet. You looked beautiful, my dear. Not because of the new clothes you were styling or the perfect French braid that drew attention your thin, delicate face—neither of which you wanted to wear, but I made you. You were beautiful because you smiled all evening. There was not one meltdown. There was not one moment when I saw you alone picking at your nails, playing on your iPad, or reading a book. You skated on the rink, ate a bite of pizza and cake, enjoyed the DJ booth with your friends, and opened presents that were uniquely you—an animal cell model, Warriors’ series books, Barnes and Noble gift cards, puzzles, art and craft supplies, cat-related items, Reese’s cups, Swedish fish, and more. Your friends know you.
And as I packed away the presents and placed the remainder of the artist’s palette cake, complete with brush and splotches, into the box to leave the skating rink, I heard the DJ play “You Are My Sunshine.” You were still skating with your friends and spent the night with your dad.
I haven’t had the chance to tell you how much the requested song meant to me. I’ve sung that song to you every night as I’ve tucked you into bed since you were a newborn.
You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Happy 12th birthday, Sunshine on the Spectrum!