Birthday celebrations are a sacred, fun, and an important part in my life. Celebrations always include a birthday cake, the candles, homemade cards, and a special meal. My mom showed me as a child the importance of celebrating those you love. There is never a wrong moment to pop the confetti and dig into the chocolate cake. Now I’m a mom. It is also important for me to model for my kids how we take care of those we love. How we honor them. How we smile with our hearts because we are happy to celebrate another year with them. How finding the perfect cake is so important because it is what the birthday person likes. How making a special meal for that person is a selfless act – all because we love them.
This particular birthday included all the fixings of a wonderful celebration. Special peanut-butter chocolate lava and chocolate-cherry ganache were the birthday cupcakes. A candied lemon and simple vanilla, gluten- and dairy-free, were also part of the birthday cupcake purchase. Why? I also want my son to be able to enjoy birthday celebrations with those he adores – and also enjoy the best part of the birthday: cake.
So after the special meal was prepared, devoured and dishes were clean, my kids pulled the birthday cupcakes from the white bakers’ box. Pure joy beamed when they opened the box, admiring the cherry sitting on a mountain of frosting and a candied lemon twist adoring another pile of sugar.
“Oh, that one is mine!” squealed my son.
My daughter, often the sage, replied to him, “No, Brother. We are sharing, remember?”
And then, again, my son squealed, “No, that ONE is my mine. It is the only one I can eat! I have allergies, REMEMBER?”
And thus, the battle over birthday cupcakes started. My son’s wire-tight focus was on the candied lemon, gluten- and dairy-free cupcake. He suddenly sensed a fear that his cupcake was unlike the others on the plate – and he wanted to also enjoy the birthday celebration. He couldn’t see past the candied lemon cupcake … not because he didn’t care deeply about the person being celebrated, but because he logically didn’t understand why the gluten- and dairy-free cupcake would be grouped into the cupcake display to be presented to the birthday person.
Like so many times in our house, I noticed right away that my son was stuck. For some, he may be viewed as being selfish or unable to celebrate others. Yes, this may be the perspective that I also took prior to fully understanding Autism Spectrum. However, if you look at what led up to his squealing, you will see it was about the logic of the cupcake – and not the person being celebrated. His cupcake was falling into a gray area – not his chosen black or white areas.
This moment is referred to the technical term cognitive rigidity. The best way to describe cognitive rigidity, as explained by Dr. James Coplan, is “difficulty in changing mental sets.” A simpler way of explaining this is to think about things outside of your own box. Now, I can’t say to my son, “Think outside of the box,” because this
isn’t concrete. But, when I say, “Let’s be flexible right now,” this will shift his thinking. This is his cue for trying something new. For trusting me. For being open to what might happen. My son doesn’t really like being flexible. In fact, he would much prefer to stick to the way he likes things. However, in the perspective of society, this is considered selfish. So, it is my duty as a mother, to help my son understand what it means to be flexible. It is also my mission to help his practice flexibility on a daily basis.
I do so because I truly believe that with practice, any child, whether on the Autism Spectrum or not, can have grace for and celebrate the life of others.
So, my son practiced flexibility with “his cupcake.” He placed the candied lemon cupcake next to the peanut-butter chocolate lava and chocolate-cherry ganache cupcakes. He was very careful to place it in a way that wouldn’t allow for any contamination. And then he was ready … ready to celebrate and laugh and savor the sweetness of a birthday.
And on that special, yet chaotic birthday night, my son took notice of what really mattered: the birthday person. And he sang happy birthday to you, gave a big birthday hug to his loved one, and, then enjoyed his candied lemon cupcake.
My purpose in sharing this story with you is so you can see that life isn’t perfect. Raising kids, especially one on the Autism Spectrum, takes courage and requires a light heart. There was a time when I would have been embarrassed because my child was acting that way. However, when I step back, and I look at the “why” I can see that it isn’t about me being embarrassed. It is about putting aside what others may or may not think, and instead, responding with love to help my son grow into the best version of himself.