A special surprise for a special kid.
When our son Evan turned 6, he had his first birthday party with school friends. We sang happy birthday. The kids were indulged with overly-stimulating activities. They ingested way too much sugar, and they left with goodie bags overflowing with useless items that I’m sure their parents could not wait to get rid of.
In many ways, it was a typical kid’s birthday party. However, my kid had very specific rules for his party, such as no candles, no turning the lights off to sing “Happy Birthday” and no cheering of any kind.
Because Evan has autism, things like these really bother him, so we adapt the best we can. His earlier birthdays presented other unique challenges because we didn’t know what presents to get, whom we should invite to birthday parties or what special birthday outing we should do with the birthday boy.
At the time, Evan didn’t have many words, so he couldn’t tell us what he wanted for his birthday. He had little interest in playing with toys or other kids, so he didn’t have any real friends, and we didn’t know what toys would rise to the level of birthday gift.
In our house, it is a tradition for the birthday boy or girl to go out to dinner alone with Mom and Dad on the night of his or her birthday if desired. When Evan was younger, restaurants were his least favorite place to be. Plus, Evan has so many allergies that we bring his food with us. When he turned 5, we took him to our favorite sushi restaurant just because it had ceiling fans. He appreciated it, but it didn’t rise to the level of a great birthday dinner spot.
When his next birthday rolled around, he was going through a phase where restaurants were too loud or too dark. The pressure was on to come up with something special for this birthday boy. What did Evan love that we could do on a weeknight?
For the next four years, we celebrated Evan’s birthdays in the light and fan aisles of a nearby Home Depot. The first time we went, Evan was 7. He sat with his hands on the steering wheel of a car-shaped shopping cart, wearing a birthday crown that his teacher made. We walked up and down the light and fan aisle while Evan ate his dinner and talked nonstop about the chandeliers, lights and ceiling fans.
While Evan looked up at the lights and fans, I kept glancing up uncomfortably at the cameras and wondering when security was going to ask us to buy something or leave. They never did. And the other customers weren’t in the aisle long enough to realize we weren’t there to shop. I don’t think anyone knew that we were at Home Depot celebrating our son’s birthday — and he was having the best one ever.
Evan still loves Home Depot but not enough to put it on the birthday celebration short list. These days he is obsessed with curly hair. I don’t think there is a word to describe his deeply intense passion for curly hair. He is constantly approaching strangers to compliment their curls.
This was the first year in a while that we didn’t do a birthday party (we started doing them again a few years ago at his request), but we wanted some sort of a special birthday celebration. Thinking of Evan’s passion for curls, it was almost a no-brainer to invite people we knew with curly hair to come over and celebrate with Evan.
After dinner, we told Evan we had a surprise for him in the garage. After a slight miscommunication about whether Evan was coming out of the house or the curly crew was coming in, Evan opened the door to our garage.
“Surprise!” everyone yelled in unison during Evan’s early November birthday celebration.
“What is this?” asked a confused 12-year-old. Then after a very short pause, it clicked. “Wow. Look at these beatsyonnas (a word Evan lovingly made up to describe a woman with curly hair)! They’re all beatsyonnas!”
And the beatsyonnas spontaneously burst out into a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Throughout the night, Evan kept shouting things like, “This is what I’ve always wanted,” “Best birthday surprise ever,” “Thumbs up everybody. Thumbs up!”
There were nearly two dozen people in our house that night. Most of them had natural curls, but a few came with wigs or used a curling iron, and they couldn’t stop smiling and laughing because Evan’s happiness was contagious. “We celebrated him as he celebrated all of us,” commented one of our guests.
One of the things that made this celebration and the Home Depot dinners so special is the fact that both were experiences that matched our son’s interests. Neither were materialistic. And, more important, they were experiences that gave Evan more happiness than anything anyone could ever buy.
To see Evan’s reaction to his birthday surprise, visit facebook.com/lovewhatreallymatters/videos/1730483333640724/?hc_location=ufi.