Reflections on the birthday ritual and autism.
May 22, 2016 § 9 Comments
(Dirt Cups 2014, my homage to Meret Oppenheim’s 1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon)
It can be hard to strike the right birthday note. This post is about alternatives in the all pervasive social narrative of what makes for a happy birthday. While this dominance is unintentional, nonetheless it carries a potentially damaging myth about what can and should make you happy.
It’s my view that the happiness and mental well being of autistic people will be enhanced when our own versions of sociability and celebration are inserted and validated within mainstream culture. Without this we continue to be prone to false expectations, which can be harmful and destructive to an autistic sense of self. We are only made fragile through denial. A robust psyche (conversely) is created through authentication in the wider eye. Recognition and respect are fundamental to accepting and assimilating plurality of neurological existence, including autism as an alternative paradigm.
Birthdays can feel every bit as alienating as other major holidays for some autistic people.
As a society we must begin to take note that for some of our citizens birthdays can be a trigger for traumatic memory, an emotional minefield to be navigated with care. Birthdays can manifest as foci for isolation, on one hand, or social pressure and overload on the other. Over and over. Year on year.
This is because autistic people are so often excluded, not only from social invitation, but also (almost entirely) from the public imagination. A narrow concept of what autism is, and what autistic people can bring to the broader neurological table of humanity, is to blame. Clearly we have a long way to go, but we also need to start somewhere. We need to chip away at misconception on all social and cultural fronts, including attention to our rituals. I believe it is our rituals that make us.
We could be so very much more imaginative (pluralistic) and kinder as a culture in both our understanding of and performing of birthday rituals, and extend our rather limited concept of celebration to include a gamut of options. There is but a small repertoire of actions, which value only one style of social behaviours, and are riddled with assumptions. It takes courage, if not defiance to break away in both practical and emotional terms.
As I write, I realise that there will also be non-autistics who would also like a little less social pressure around birthdays, and although my post attempts to go more specifically into autistic identity, I will be very glad to have you on board.
I’m not traumatised by birthdays myself, but I am a little wary. Memory is hazy, but I have a sense of childhood birthdays as boobytrap days. Days brimming with hidden depths and shallows.
Having just revisited the secret comforts of ageing privately, I observe once more that there’s an advantage to piling on the years – it becomes increasingly socially acceptable to hide it
No. Not once you start to unpick exactly how deeply social assumption runs through the veins of our neuro-dominant culture at each and every turn.
While we’re conditioned to cover up signs of ageing, this too can be a pretext for social activity. Neurotypical people are more likely to do this covering-up in company. Sound oxymoronic? Only when viewed from the outside, perhaps?
In some versions of what birthday is, the problematics of ageing are performed and mediated as a group experience. Wrinkles can be commiserated, if not toasted, and hilarity ensue over the less appealing aspects of ageing. Some people need this kind of validation and benefit from what I might term social superglue.
I get it (and even why), but I don’t want to do this, or any other version of it. Not that I don’t love my friends, I emphatically DO. I’ll even happily talk wrinkles and chin hairs over coffee or a glass or two. It’s simply that what I most want on my birthday is quiet and the absence of pressure.
So what’s the problem with that? You will probably only ask this if you are not autistic. The problem is that mainstream culture serves to mock and pressure those who don’t conform, and we are made to feel lesser about our needs and choices. Societal expectations just DO NOT FIT.
So I want my own oxymoron – to assert quite LOUDLY the absolute legitimacy of the quiet birthday. And I will give you my three main reasons (which may be different for other autistics who prefer a quiet time).
I don’t like to be the focus of attention.
Less is more.
I only have so much social energy (spoons) to call on in any one given day. Socialising comes at a great cost (think a two day hangover or jet-lag).
There’s one proviso to all this – there will be autistic people who DO want to go clubbing on their birthday, or hang-gliding, or get plastered with their bessie mates. And that is okay by me.
What we need in cultural terms is to take a step back from these models of birthday fun and take the judgment out of staying home, being alone, and binge watching on Netflix (if that’s what gives you joy). It’s NOT sad, it’s not Nobby no mates, it’s not wrong.
It’s TOTALLY okay to be you.
My one unshakeable birthday ritual is tea and cake – in a clean cup though, the above image is only art!